Brandon businesses showing new vitality

BRANDON — The downtown Brandon business community has been through a rough patch, but it is seeing signs of light.
The last few years have meant more empty storefronts on Park and Center streets, but despite “The Great Recession” six new businesses have moved in over the last six months, with four opening in November alone. As a testament to the hard work and creativity of Brandon residents, every one of these businesses is locally owned and operated.
What follows is a brief description of the new businesses.
Jewelry designer Rebecca Zelis opened for business last month, occupying the space formerly inhabited by Margaret Donahue Fine Needlework. For Zelis, selling her “handmade wearables” in her own space on Brandon’s main drag is a real treat. A busy mother with two kids — Emerson, 8, and Luke, 6 — and husband, Mark, Zelis said she finds her new shop a great respite from the rest of her life.
“This is really nice, to have my own space,” said Zelis, who had a studio in the Granary Building on Union Street before leasing the space downtown in the Conant Block.
Zelis keeps it local. She sells her own jewelry, but also carries other offerings, including felted hats and headpieces by Brandon artists Sam Stone and Nora Swan.
“My mission is to keep it all handmade and handcrafted,” she said. “Ninety percent of the work here is from Brandon. There’s one guy who lives in Burlington.”
Another emphasis is on original work.
“One of a kind,” Zelis said proudly. “You’re not going to come in and find something that 10 other people are wearing,” she said.
Zelis and her young family moved to Brandon five years ago, drawing a line on a map within an hour’s drive of Ludlow, where her parents had retired.
With her new venture, the designer is giving back to Brandon in the process. While Zelis hopes to turn a profit, regardless of how big or small it may be, 10 percent of her profits will go to a different local charity each month. In November it was the Boys and Girls Club of Brandon; this month it will be the Brandon Town Hall. So, why part with her profits as a fledgling business?
“Because you live in this community and you want to participate,” she said earnestly. “We want to give back to this community that’s given so much to us.”
While it will also be the home of the better-known Plan-It-Sheri Catering Company, Sheri Sullivan has purchased the former Brandon Falls Diner next to Carr’s Florist & Gifts and opened the day after Thanksgiving.
“It’s traditional diner fare, with a few twists,” Sullivan said.
She will still offer her prepared meals to go, which will be available in a cooler at the front of the diner. Freshly prepared meals to go will be available for those who order them.
Bernie and Beth Carr of Carr’s Florist own the building and Bernie’s brother Steve is Sullivan’s business manager. After the Brandon Falls Diner closed in early October, Sullivan said Steve Carr approached her about buying the business, and she jumped at it. With a $50,000 loan from the Brandon Revolving Loan Fund, Sullivan said she will offer good food at reasonable prices, as well as a gathering place. Local architect Nancy Leary is helping Sullivan with the interior design of the diner, which will feature a large community calendar chalkboard containing daily activities for visitors.
“This is going to be a real community meeting place,” Sullivan said.
In January as funding allows, Sullivan plans to take down the wall between the kitchen and the dining area and create an eating counter, which will open up the long but narrow space. Sullivan is also hanging three, five-foot-tall distressed antique windows backed with mirrors along the diner’s long wall to make the space feel more open.
And talk about a local touch, well-known Brandon-based photographer Caleb Kenna will hang a permanent exhibit in between the mirrored windows featuring portraits of people from Brandon.
Sullivan is originally from Boston and grew up in the restaurant business. She’s been in Brandon since 1999. She said a diner is something she’s also admired.
“I love diners,” she said. “And I think most people like diners because you don’t have to put on airs. You can come in dressed in whatever.”
In roughly the last 10 years, there have been three restaurants in the space at 25 Center St.: The Cookstove Restaurant, which became Miss B’s, which became Brandon Falls. In fact, it’s a bit of a homecoming for Sullivan, who said she started catering not long after arriving in Brandon right out of the diner’s kitchen.
So, what will make Sheri’s Diner successful?
“If it’s a good diner, it will be really good food at a really good price, and that’s what people need right now,” she said. “I think we’re going to appeal to many. I intend to make this a place where people can hang out.”
Asked what she thinks is the reason why local people are filling downtown storefronts, Sullivan was clear.
“I think our local business people are aware that we need to create more energy downtown for all of us to do better,” she said. “People who think competition is bad just don’t get it.”
Thor and Virginia Konwin of Branford House Antiques have opened a satellite store at 15 Center St. in the space formerly occupied by JoAnne’s Bridal. The Konwins have been displaying specific antiques in the windows for about a year in an effort to make the emptiness less noticeable. Thor said the satellite store is a temporary plan that will last just until the end of the year.
“We’re really trying to be part of the Brandon Chamber’s local buying effort,” Thor Konwin said. “We’ll be here for Moonlight Madness.”
Konwin said he arrived at an agreement with building owners Alex and Phyllis Rose of Burlington to initially display some of his antiques in the windows after JoAnne’s closed, then in the store itself.
“You have the nice village, and empty storefronts make it look bad,” Konwin said. “Putting things in windows makes it more inviting, and makes it look like something’s happening.”
And the owners agreed.
“They said it looks better, especially when perspective tenants come to look at the building.”
In return, the Konwins promised:
1. To do no harm.
2. Not to cost the landlords any money.
3. To make the windows look good.
Branford House Antiques is located on Route 7 South on the border between Brandon and Pittsford, hence the name. The business occupies the former Pomainville farmhouse and barn in what’s known as “The Dip.” Konwin said what’s good for Brandon village is good for him.
“If people don’t think Brandon is successful, they won’t come by my store and shop,” he said simply.
Asked about the surge of new local downtown business owners, Konwin said it’s all about creativity.
“I think it shows people have ideas, and who knows what can come of that?” he said.
The space under Café Provence was occupied by the Contrary Mary arts & crafts store that went out of business during the summer after just over a year.
Mike Seward is well known in New England antique circles, having been in the business for almost 30 years. He used to own Rutland Antiques in Rutland during the 1980s and since then has operated out of his home in Pittsford and from three different antiques centers in Middlebury, Cambridge, N.Y., and Northwood, N.H.
He moved into the downtown Brandon space in October.
“I like the looks of Brandon and I like the idea of Route 7 going through town,” he said. “I wanted to get some of the business out of the house.”
He will only be open on Fridays because he has to man the booths at the antiques centers, but Seward said business has been good, about 20-30 people a day.
“I get repeat customers, and they follow me,” he said, adding that 95 percent of his customers are fellow dealers.
“I don’t mark things up a lot, and I try to keep the prices manageable,” Seward said.
He is vice president of the Vermont Antique Dealers Association, and a member of both the New Hampshire and American antique dealers associations.
Seward said the popularity of Internet sites like eBay has changed the game for antique dealers, but not the way he does business.
“It’s something we’ve had to fight against,” he said. “I just try to use it. It’s a way of getting rid of merchandise I can’t sell anyway. I never put fresh stuff on eBay.”
Roseann and Larry Johnson bought the former Brown’s of Brandon gift shop building in 2008, remodeled the upstairs into a living space for themselves and divided the street-level shop into two retail spaces with the hope of renting them out.
Tastes of the Valley, the tasting room and gift shop of the Neshobe River Winery, opened on the left side last spring. Roseann decided to open her own space next door as a consignment shop featuring the work of local painters, jewelry makers, felters, photographers and others.
“We started with 50 artists and we have 60 now,” she said. “And, there are more coming in all the time.”
With a background in crafting and marketing, Johnson saw a niche, giving a platform to local artists not represented by the Brandon Artists’ Guild. The only BAG artist Johnson carries is Liza Myers.
“She’s a force,” Johnson said. “I made an exception for her.”
Other Brandon artists represented at the gallery include Lyn Orth (watercolors), Mike Denis (woodworking), Chuck Mitchell (furniture), and Janice Ryan (paintings). And there are plenty more, from Brandon and other parts of the state as well.
“Brandon has a very good reputation in Vermont, and Brandon has one of the highest concentrations of artists,” Johnson said. “Because the BAG is already doing such a fine job representing their artists, we wanted to help the others.”
Johnson was asked for her take on why so many local folks are striking out on their own in downtown Brandon.
“I think it’s because people have creative energy here that has to be expressed,” she said. “Vermonters are really create, entrepreneurial people.”
The much-loved and famous American folk artist Warren Kimble was found one day last month painting all right — painting his new space in downtown Brandon with a roller and a paint pan.
Kimble closed on the former Brown’s Pharmacy building last month and has plans to move his studio from his home up the street to the back of the space and have a gallery in the front featuring all original paintings.
“I’ll be open by chance or appointment,” Kimble said. “I’m there when I’m there. I’m not going to have regular hours. I’m too old for that.”
Kimble and his wife, Lorraine, will renovate the second floor of the building into a living space with an eye to the future.
“Lorraine and I will probably live there when we downsize,” Kimble said, adding with a laugh, “I’m interested in staying out of the retirement community. I have a community right here.”
Kimble seems to relish the idea of being front and center in the downtown.
“It’s such fun to be on the main street and see everything happening,” he said. “Downtown is who we are. It’s where we talk to each other, where we see each other. That’s the value of this community. We have a local downtown.”
Kimble was central to Brandon’s resurgence after 2000, when the BAG was formed, a number of broken-down and burned-out buildings were razed to make way for two parks, and a number of buildings were renovated. The last five years it’s been hard for the artist to watch the storefronts empty out.
“It’s been crazy trying to figure out what to do about downtown Brandon, and it’s all us,” he said.
As for the surge in local business owners, Kimble said he’s not surprised and continues to be heartened by the creativity in his community.
“It just happened,” he said. “It’s what happened 10 years ago. I attribute it to who we are, to the arts, to the chamber. It’s who we are. It’s a very special community.”
Kimble added that the best part is the lack of bureaucracy.
“We didn’t have any big meetings or planning sessions, it just … happened,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s just wild. All of a sudden, we’re taking care of ourselves, and that’s the bottom line.”

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