Middlebury Antique Center and Ben Franklin to close soon

MIDDLEBURY — The sun will set on two longtime Middlebury businesses this summer: The Ben Franklin Store at 63 Main St. and the Middlebury Antique Center at 3255 Route 7 South.
Owners of both stores have been trying to sell their respective properties for more than a year. And in both cases, the owners are making clear their closing plans to customers through colorful signs and related liquidation sales.
Closure of Ben Franklin will mark the end of an era of sorts for Middlebury residents who since 1943 have visited the general merchandise store looking for items ranging from toys to penny candy to quilt fabric.
Ben Franklin owner Andy Li on Wednesday confirmed plans to close the store sometime this August after selling as much inventory as possible. He and his family acquired the building — which includes two upstairs apartments — in January of 2009 from Larry Duffany.
Li said that sadly, retail sales have been declining for several years. But he’s kept the store open while the building has been for sale or lease.
The Yogurt City store located within the building will remain open, according to Li.
A May 3 listing on middvermontrealestate.com states the Ben Franklin property has been on the market for 1,095 days (three years). The two-story, 10,366-square-foot property is listed for $850,000, through Bonnie Gridley of Middlebury’s RE/MAX North Professionals.
The structure was built in 1909. The Ben Franklin retail store encompasses 5,446 square feet.
Li said his current staff of five workers will now be looking for new jobs.
Most items at Ben Franklin are now 25-percent off, with deeper discounts on seasonal wares (such as Christmas decorations), according to Li.
Meanwhile, Francis Stevens has set July 4 as the official closing date for the Middlebury Antique Center that he and his wife, Diane, have owned and operated for the past 34 years. Stevens, 79, said business has been good, but he’d like to wind down his work schedule to focus on one of his other passions: Stamp collecting.
“It’s been good; I’ve got no complaints,” Stevens said of his long run at Middlebury Antique Center.
His business plan has been simple and effective. He’s rented space to various antique vendors, accepted some items on consignment, and sold his own inventory culled from estate sales, auctions and other sources.
Dedication, longevity and his trusty canine sidekick “Mr. Gibbs” have earned Stevens a faithful clientele that’s included antique dealers, local customers and tourists. Summer and fall have traditionally been the best seasons for the antique business, said Stevens, who over the years has sold a lot of vintage jewelry, furnishings, artwork, ephemera and other prized items. And some transactions have involved tidy sums, such as a Tiffany lamp for $14,000, a chicken weathervane for $18,000 and Audubon prints for $30,000. He’s also sold some paintings for upwards of $15,000.
When it first started, the Middlebury Antique Center featured wares from around 60 vendors. It’s now down to approximately 30, according to Stevens.
FRANCIS STEVENS AND his trusty canine sidekick Mr. Gibbs will be closing the Middlebury Antique Center on Route 7 South this July 4. The center has been a go-to spot for antique enthusiasts for more than three decades.
Independent photo/John Flowers
Antiquing has generally been on the decline, Stevens lamented. Millennials don’t seem to be as interested in vintage stuff, he noted. Dealers are increasingly gathering and selling at antique shows and conventions throughout the country. Others are content to purchase their vintage items through the Internet, as opposed to visiting a store.
These and other factors have contributed to the demise of local antique stores, according to Stevens, who remembered a time when there were a handful of such businesses between Middlebury and Rutland. He believes his antiques store might be among the last few left along that route.
Some of Stevens’ clients are sad the store is closing and will now have to find other ways to display and sell their antiques.
Loy Harrell of Hinesburg has been selling antique duck decoys through the Middlebury Antique Center for many years. He is author of the 1986 book “Duck Decoys of Lake Champlain.”
“I have a lot of fun,” Harrell said of his times at the center. “I’ve known Francis for 35 years. I have social contact with people here. It’s become a way of life. I will miss it terribly.”
He credited Stevens for his stewardship of the center and for being a great resource for vendors.
“People like Francis; he’s friendly and considerate,” Harrell said. “One of the things that has made this shop so successful is that (Stevens) is a hands-on owner. He’s here to help people, and that’s the way you run a good business.”
Loss of the center will leave a big void for area antique enthusiasts.
“There are lots of disappointed dealers,” Harrell said. “This place is like an oasis, and the oasis is drying up; that’s how I feel.”
Barbara Blanchette has rented space in the center for the past two-and-a-half years. She’s sold mostly jewelry and artwork.
“I’ve found it great to work with Francis,” Blanchette said. “The place always looks great. He’s very professional, the way he’s maintained the center through the years.”
Blanchette knows a lot about antiques. She’s helped in the past with antique auctions benefitting the Sheldon Museum and the Town Hall Theater. She’ll help organize the THT’s next “Fabulous Flea Market” on Sept. 15.
Stevens hopes someone will soon snap up the Middlebury Antique Center property, currently listed at $150,000 by Dave Curley of J. L. Davis Realty.
The building, on one acre at the corner of Ossie Road near the gateway to East Middlebury, was erected in 1936.
“I think it’s a great location,” Stevens said, adding the sales price reflects the fact “the building needs a little work.”
Asked what he’ll miss most about the center, he immediately replied, “The people.”
“I’ve made a lot of friends,” Stevens said. “I’ve held onto (the store) for so long because of that fact.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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