Carol’s closes New Haven diner; Clay’s ends its run

MIDDLEBURY — Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on June 24 closed its diner/coffee shop at 7404 Route 7 in New Haven, but founder/owner John Melanson is hoping to keep the original Carol’s location open at 24 Merchants Row in Middlebury.
June 24 was also the last day of business at the Clay’s Clothing store at 60 Main St., Middlebury. The business had enjoyed a more than 25-year run in the county’s shire town, but finally succumbed to what ownership described as a two-year period of declining sales and the portend of additional challenges posed by the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project.
The closing of Clay’s, coupled with Carol’s tenuous financial status, present more unwelcome news for Middlebury’s downtown retail scene. As previously reported by the Independent, the Ben Franklin on Main Street will close later this summer and The Diner on Merchants Row closed on Memorial Day. Both Ben Franklin and The Diner had been downtown mainstays for generations.
Other local businesses are girding for major construction that will come with the replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. That $72 million project is expected to bring some detours, traffic delays and noise to the village during portions of the next three years.
State and local officials and a citizens’ group are taking steps to mitigate the project impacts for affected merchants and residents. Those efforts will continue to be chronicled in the Independent.
Thursday saw Melanson serving as host, baker, counter person and barista at Carol’s on Merchants Row. He has pared his staff down to himself and one other person who is working three hours a day. Melanson is trying to pare his costs to a bare minimum — and is gratefully accepting donations — in an effort to pay off back rent and taxes and hopefully extend the coffee shop’s life into July, when he said business traditionally picks up.
“It’s coming back and getting stronger,” Melanson said.
But not strong enough to sustain two coffee shops, he conceded.
It was in 2015 that Melanson opened the Route 7 Carol’s in New Haven to try and give the small enterprise some stability in anticipation of lost sales during the Middlebury rail bridges project. He was upbeat this past spring about progress at the new spot, but had to shut down both the Middlebury and New Haven locations for several days last month pending an agreement with the Vermont Department of Taxes on payback of back taxes.
“To  reopen either place, I had to have more money,” Melanson explained.
CAROL’S HUNGRY MIND Café owner John Melanson closed his diner/coffee shop at 7404 Route 7 in New Haven on June 24 citing financial difficulties. The Carol’s on Merchants Row in downtown Middlebury remained open as of late last week.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Carol’s supporters supplied him with a financial lifeline through a gofundme campaign and individual contributions, one of them for $5,000. But Melanson decided he couldn’t afford to run both places anymore. So he reopened the Middlebury Carol’s and bid a sad farewell to the Route 7 spot.
He lauded his Route 7 landlord for his willingness to work with him to sustain the New Haven Carol’s. Still, Melanson didn’t see how he could make the numbers work. Faced with a difficult choice, he knew his “real love” was the Merchants Row Carol’s.
Melanson also gave kudos to his Merchants Row landlord, Doug Nedde, whom he described as being “very fair,” in spite of the approximately $20,000 in back rent that has accrued.
But he realizes time might be running out.
“He’s talking seriously though about not being able to support me anymore,” he said.
Melanson vowed to keep plugging away to keep Carol’s chugging past its 13th birthday.
 “I don’t know if I’m going to make it here; I go day to day,” Melanson said. “I’m doing everything I can to keep it afloat, and appreciate the help of everyone who has contributed.
“I wake up, bake the scones, eventually close the place and move on to the next day,” he added. “If somebody at some point says, ‘You don’t have enough money and I’m going to have to shut you down…’ then I’ll be shut down — kicking and screaming.”
If Carol’s does close, he believes it will be greatly missed.
“I never realized it would be so much of a community space,” Melanson said.
Meanwhile, Clay’s permanently closed its doors at 60 Main St. a week ago Sunday after more than a quarter century in Addison County’s shire town. Kurt and Laura Reichelt founded Clay’s — which billed itself as “A Unique Women’s Clothing Store” — back in 1971. Until recently there were a total of nine Clay’s stores in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. That number has now declined to seven, following last month’s closing of the Middlebury and Rutland stores.
Elke Reichelt, district manager for the company, said she made the painful decision to shutter the two stores after a roughly two-year pattern of declining sales at both locations. She said the Middlebury store faced additional challenges of inadequate nearby parking and a rail bridges project that will disrupt downtown activities for portions of the next three years.
Reichelt said she spent several months looking for a different Middlebury location for Clay’s, one that could afford more parking and some distance from the impending construction disruption.
“There really wasn’t anything to move into,” she said. “At this point, we’re not actively looking anymore.”
Reichelt won’t rule out a Clay’s return to Middlebury if the right space were to open up.
“Middlebury is a great community to be in,” she said. “We loved our loyal customers and we will miss them.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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