New owners bring lifetime love of New Haven general store
NEW HAVEN — While today’s customer is a lot likelier to purchase a Kit Kat candy bar than a horse harness, the Village Green Market has been supplying New Haven residents — and acting as an important center for community life — for over 200 years. As the market’s new owners, New Haven native John Roleau and his wife, Margo, will carry on that longstanding tradition.
The Roleaus purchased the store in late December, are carrying out a few renovations and plan to reopen later this month.
For John Roleau, whose family home and new residence is right next to the store on the town green, owning this business is part of a childhood dream. As a kid he hung out there at all hours to the point where he was called “Little John” to distinguish him from then-store owner Jon Apgar. As a teenager, the store gave Roleau one of his first jobs.
“I grew up with the store,” Roleau said. “I pretty much spent every waking moment in that store with Jon.”
Margo Roleau, who grew up in Monkton, also has ties to the store that run deep.
“My dad used to come hang out at the store on Saturday mornings,” she recalled. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to Jonny’s store to hang out with the guys.’”
The Roleaus will continue to run Packard of Vermont, the family-owned auto repair and sales business, as they also take on running the Village Green Market — and continue raising three young children: Lincoln, 5 months; Dylann, 2; and Camden, 5. Roleau is also on the New Haven selectboard and is the New Haven road commissioner. The offer to buy the store came soon after the Roleaus moved into the family home on Town Hill Road.
“Everyone thinks we’re crazy — and I agree with them — except us. We think we’re crazy right now, but it’s going to work out,” John Roleau said.
But for him, these many responsibilities also tie together. Roleau said that his work on the town plan as a selectman has made him think about the importance of the town center to the community.
“We’ve been going through the town plan, and there’s a section for the town center. It’s its own district,” he said. “And the town plan went on to say how important it was and how historic it was and how through the years and this that and the other thing and it just hit me: I want to be part of that — more.”
In addition to their business experience and history with the town, the Roleaus bring experience with small stores in Vermont. Margo worked at Lantman’s in Hinesburg in high school and college. Roleau drove a beer delivery truck for about 10 years after graduating from Champlain College, going to restaurants and stores across the state.
“I’ve been in every mom and pop from Middlebury north delivering,” he said.
While their renovation is being guided by dollars and cents — Roleau wants to make more efficient use of the space so that every square inch is selling something — they also want to carry on the market’s heritage as a community gathering spot.
“It just needs a little love,” said Margo. “We’re going to clean it up, spruce it up, new paint, everything, redo the floors — just get everything looking like a new store inside.”
“It’ll still be the cool, old store but completely different,” John added.
Also important to the Roleaus is to make the store as welcoming as possible to old timers and newcomers alike.
“There’s a huge morning coffee crowd — granted that doesn’t bring in a ton of money because a guy will sit and drink maybe two cups of coffee for two hours — but those people are important and that’s the important part of a town center, a town hub,” John Roleau said. “I grew up with the coffee crew over there. They always were there and you learn stuff and you hear stories and half of it’s true, half of it isn’t, but it gives you a chuckle when you leave. That’s important.”
But the Roleaus said they will reorient the layout so that other customers will find an easier path to their cup of coffee.
“We love the morning crowd; they’re huge. But we’re going to also welcome in the other people that may not want to walk through five guys talking about manure spreaders,” Roleau said.
The Roleaus are also planning to expand the store’s deli offerings, and do more with salads, baked goods and take out.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
According to New Haven Historical Society President Bev Landon, the Village Green Market first opened in 1807 and was operated by brothers Ira and Noble Stewart. The prize for longest-running ownership undoubtedly goes to the Roscoe family, who operated the store from 1833 to 1924.
The Roleaus purchased the store from John and Carmen Palmer and their son Andre, who bought the store in 2002. When Roleau was growing up, the store was owned by Jon and Patti Apgar, who sold it to the Palmers.
Andre Palmer said his family had been wanting to sell the store to be able to put more focus into the family’s Misty Knoll Farms chicken and turkey business, as it continues to expand.
“We’re busy with the farm,” Palmer said. “And John’s the one who wanted to buy it.”
Landon said the store has always provided a heart to the town center.
“It used to sell gas. At one time, it had a hardware area in the back. And it’s always had an area where people would sit and chat,” she said.
Having someone with such a long-rooted history with the town and the store as the new owner, said Landon, will help continue that tradition.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].