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Vergennes shopkeeper ventures into some familiar territory

VERGENNES — In October 1982, Linda Cook, then 20, went to work as a retail clerk for Fishman’s Department Store owner David Coen at the corner of Main and Green streets, right in the center of Vergennes.
Since then, Cook’s career has never left the heart of downtown, although she did switch sides of the road: She worked from 1997 to 2005 at Classic Stitching, on the other side of Green Street, after Coen closed Fishman’s in 1997.
In 2007, the Main Street shop veteran took over the left half of the former Fishman’s space and opened her own store for the first time, Linda’s Gifts and Apparel, with women’s clothing the central offering.
The other half of Fishman’s had in 1998 been leased by Waltham couple Tim and Amanda Hodson, who opened their own clothing store, Addison Outfitters, in the space. In 2007, Cook and the Hodsons decided to keep the archway between their stores open, thus almost duplicating what Fishman’s had offered the Vergennes area for a century before its doors were closed.
But this year, the Hodsons decided 14 years of small-scale retail was enough.
And Cook — who also before marrying her husband, Bruce, lived between 1984 and 2000 in an apartment in the former Fishman’s building — faced a decision: She had an opportunity to all but recreate the store in which she started her career 30 years before.
Her choice was to replace Addison Outfitters, and on Sept. 29 she opened The Men’s Corner at Linda’s in that space.
Some elements of expanding into an attached space made perfect sense to an expert in Vergennes retail.
“I didn’t want to see it empty. I knew we needed to have menswear here in town,” Cook said. “So it was just a natural transition to go into it.”
At the same time, there was also the reality of the making the investment in roughly doubling her inventory and her lease payments. Some doubts were natural. 
“It’s pretty scary, actually,” Cook said.
But she does believe there is potential in her new space that perhaps previously went untapped. She retained some of the well-known clothing lines that Addison Outfitters offered — Carhartt, of course, plus Columbia, Haines, Duofold and Woolrich — and has added others at more varied price points.
“I thought things could be done a little differently … With enthusiasm and a fresh approach things could turn around,” Cook said. “Not everyone can afford a $50 shirt, so we have some for $24. We have some men’s pajamas for $15. We have some windbreakers that are like $40 instead of $80. And we’re still working on some other lines to get in here, too.”
Of course, there were other personal reasons to say yes. Now she owns a downtown anchor not unlike that in which she started her career 30 years ago.
“It’s very overwhelming. It gives you a sense of pride that I’m able to do this,” Cook said. “It gives you a sense of pride that you’re able to fill a niche for the community … People still come in and say they miss Fishman’s.”
In her first couple months, business has been at least respectable, and she was thrilled to see many of her regular customers support her on “Small Business Saturday” on Nov. 24.
 “People are liking it. They’re liking the layout, the new color scheme,” she said. “Everybody’s been loving it.”
When Cook starts talking about her customers, she can quickly become emotional. When asked why she has devoted her working life to one intersection, she answers in part by including employee Jen Hatch in the conversation.
“It’s because I love my customers. They’re like family. Like Jen’s mom, she’s family. You know, I’ve seen her grow up, and now she’s having kids,” Cook said. “That’s what I love about it. It’s like an extended family.”
Vergennes Partnership director and regular Cook customer Tara Brooks said Cook’s feelings about her customers have helped her thrive in retail through the years.
“She doesn’t put pressure on when you walk in the door. A lot of it is the relationships she has built,” Brooks said. “I feel I can go in there and not feel pressure to buy anything, and I think that builds loyalty in customers. She gets to know people on a different level.”
And those relationships, Cook said, pulling out a handkerchief and patting an eye, is what she hopes will keep her at the corner of Main and Green for “a very long time” more.
“I’m going to get all choked up. I’m very grateful that I have been able to this, because I do love my job. And it is about the customers. They mean a lot to me. I always do this when I talk about that. My friend Jeannie … and I went out to dinner one night and I’m like bawling in the restaurant because I was just so happy with my life in general. I have a very good husband, and a good family, and they’re very supportive,” Cook said.
“And I’m doing what I want to do. How many people can say they love their job?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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