Carol’s closes; owner of Middlebury coffee shop cites back taxes

MIDDLEBURY — Regulars of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café at 24 Merchants Row on Monday saw something they’ve been dreading for the past several years as the business has continued to navigate through choppy financial waters: A “Closed” sign.
Carol’s owner John Melanson said on Tuesday the Vermont Department of Taxes ordered him to close the business until he’s able to pay at least a $7,500 installment on an outstanding $30,000 fiscal year 2017 tax bill for the much-beloved but financially challenged venture in Middlebury’s Battell Block.
“Last year I had to make the decision to either not pay all of my taxes, or pay my food distributor,” Melanson said.
He believed the food distributor needed to be paid first. Now the state of Vermont wants its cut, and Melanson doesn’t have the cash. An online Gofundme fundraising campaign for Carol’s showed $11,160 in donations toward a $20,000 goal, but Melanson said he’s gone through those gifts already in order to keep the café open during the past few months.
Indeed, Carol’s has been a business run with a lot of heart and hard work — intangible commodities that unfortunately won’t pay the bills. A coffee shop is a thin-margin business under the best of circumstances, due to the low-cost items it dispenses and the low turnover in customers, many of whom like to sit and read, ponder, or peck away at a laptop as they sip.
And Middlebury these days hasn’t offered the best of circumstances for downtown businesses. Preliminary work has begun on a $72 million project to replace the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges with a concrete tunnel. The work is expected to last three years. Merchants Row has been changed to a one-way street since last summer, when the two 1920s-era bridges were replaced with temporary spans.
Melanson said Carol’s receipts are down substantially this year, and he blames much of it on the bridge work, which he noted will become considerably more invasive during the next few years.
“It was very bad last year and it’s looking to be worse this year,” Melanson said.
A citizens group called Neighbors Together is devising ways to mitigate the impacts of the construction, but Melanson fears it might be too late for Carol’s — unless he receives another financial life preserver. He’d like to continue the venture, because he said he loves it and he believes there’s a strong community need for a downtown coffee shop. The business has also become an entertainment hub.
“We have a lot of happy people who don’t want me to shut down here,” Melanson said.
Meanwhile, Melanson is a little more upbeat about the second “Carol’s” location he opened in 2015 at 7404 Route 7 in New Haven. He opened that new coffee shop/eatery in part to try and stem some of the financial impact of the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project. The new Carol’s hasn’t been a real moneymaker to this point, but he said, “We are on our way up. Last week was our best week.”
For more information about Carol’s, go to carolshungrymindcafe.com. The fund drive site is at gofundme.com/carolshungrymind.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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