Bristol downtown returning to health

BRISTOL — Just a few years after a recession-induced slump prompted the closure of several Main Street businesses, downtown Bristol is making a comeback.
This summer marked the opening of Lulu’s ice cream shop by the owners of Mary’s Restaurant, Danielle Smith’s Little Babycakes baby clothing store, and Rory Jackson’s painting studio and gallery space.
“I’m ecstatic that we’re almost at full occupancy,” said Carol Wells, executive director of the Bristol Downtown Community Partnership and a member of Bristol’s selectboard.
The number of empty storefronts on Main Street has shrunk from seven at the height of the slump to just two today.
A consignment store is slated to open in November, which will leave the old corner store as the last empty space on the block.
The last time Bristol’s Main Street had not a single empty storefront was 2008, but before that, Wells said, it had been “quite a number of years” since there had been a vacancy.
“We had always been somewhat blessed in Bristol,” said Wells, who explained that she used to regularly receive inquiries from people about future vacancies. “It was like having people standing on line. I had someone all lined up if a vacancy happened,” she said.
Danielle Smith opened the doors of Little Babycakes, her clothing store for young children, in July. Smith was inspired to launch her first business while shopping for clothes for her one-year-old daughter, Karlie.
“I couldn’t find one thing I liked,” Smith remembered. “So I said to my mom, ‘I should open a store in Bristol,’ just joking around. Then I looked into it and realized I could actually do it.”
Her storefront, next door to the Bobcat Café on Main Street, is painted a cheerful yellow and lined with racks of adorable toddler-sized outfits.
Smith, who works mornings at a lipstick manufacturer in Williston and opens her store in the early afternoon, is enjoying her new endeavor, despite “slow days.”
“I’m running into people I haven’t seen in years,” said the Bristol native, who added that one of her favorite parts of the job is meeting other new moms.
Another perk is ordering the clothes themselves.
“I picked a whole bunch of styles, things that I would buy personally.” Smith said. “The hard part is that everything is so cute, I want a million of everything.”
She said she has found the business community in Bristol to be very welcoming, and eventually hopes to have her shop open full-time.
Two doors down, Lulu’s ice cream shop has been serving customers small-batch, artisan-crafted ice cream all summer. As autumn chill creeps in, the store has expanded its options: it now serves piping hot soups from Vermont Restaurant of the Year, Mary’s Restaurant, located at the Inn at Baldwin Creek.
Meanwhile, next door to Lulu’s in the other half of the space that was formerly Mary’s, Rory Jackson recently opened an art space and studio. Oil paintings depicting landscapes from the Green Mountains and the Ghanaian seaside hang from the walls. Jackson said he chose the space for his personal studio because of its light.
“What’s captured in this space is the north light,” he said. “It’s located on the south side of the street, so it gets a lot of sunlight. That is important for an artist.”
In mid-November, Jackson plans to begin using the space for after-school art courses for young people. For younger students, the courses will focus on fundamentals; for older students, more advanced work including oil painting.
“I’d like to have kids who are really serious to help them along their path,” Jackson said.
But, new growth is not universal.
Across the street from Jackson’s business, Fred Kosnitsky has put his toy and books shop, Better Planet, on the market. Kosnitsky said he wanted to dedicate more time to his teaching and environmental work.
“I’ve been retailing for 22 years,” he said. “As I’m getting into my sixties, I’d like to focus on my other passions.”
Better Planet has stores in St. Albans and Bristol. While the Bristol location has only been open since 2010, the St. Albans store has been around for 22 years.
“I would much rather see them continue than close them,” Kosnitsky added. “People from both communities value the store.”
If the Bristol location is not sold by the end of the year, Kosnitsky will do a closing sale during the holiday season.
Wells is glad to see a diverse group of local businesses filling up Main Street.
“It feels great. I’m very happy,” she said.
She hopes that people will come downtown during the holiday season to explore the new offerings.
“It’s an important way of supporting the town,” she said.

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