Editorial: Many cheers for Carol’s

If you’re an Addison County resident concerned about the strength of your community, read the story on Page 1A about Carol’s Hungry Mind Café closing its doors this Tuesday after a 13-year quest to serve the community. (And watch our video, which captures the mood at the coffee shop on its last day.)
What John Melanson’s story tells us about shops in small towns — be they coffeehouses, bookstores, small retailers, movie theaters, eateries, toy stores, department stores, even community newspapers — is that they live perilously close to the edge and if the community wants to keep them, they have to recognize that vulnerability and act before it’s too late.
In Carol’s case, the public was partially forewarned and managed to stave off the end for a perhaps an extra year or two, but the current construction in Middlebury’s downtown, along with decreased parking directly in front of Carol’s and tourists who didn’t want to fuss with the mess, proved too much to overcome.
Construction-related obstacles aside, the more important message is that local patronage is critical. What is apparent in Middlebury is that patronage is lacking. In just the past couple of months, five businesses have called it quits: Ben Franklin, Clay’s apparel, Steve’s Diner, Ollie’s Toy Store and Sears. All but Sears were in the downtown, but the gauge of support is the same. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have lost dozens of other stores in the decade prior.
The message is clear: We lose what we don’t support.
Take that to heart, then reflect on what Carol’s supporters said at the coffeehouse that last day.
“I feel bad we’re losing our ‘Cheers’ in Middlebury, where you can come in and chat with people who you know and don’t know,” Salisbury resident Earl Corey said. “Cheers,” of course, was the 1980s TV sitcom about a Boston bar “where everybody knows your name.”
“It’s just a very comfortable, welcoming place to be,” Corey said of Carol’s. “And we don’t have anything like this.”
Landlord Doug Nedde, whose firm owns the Battell Block, was credited with trying to work things out with Melanson over a generous 18-month period, called Carol’s “a valued community asset for Middlebury” that came to an “unfortunate” end.
The misfortune, let’s be clear, was a lack of revenue, or to put it another way, too few paying customers. To be blunt: Not enough of us bought scones, coffee, lattes, cappuccinos, soups or sandwiches.
For his part, Melanson created a wonderfully warm environment for Middlebury to meet and greet friends and neighbors, to conduct business, discuss community affairs, to escape the cold or just be with others in that communal way without having to engage personally, if you didn’t want to. What a gift it was to so many, but it didn’t happen without a lot of effort. Melanson poured his heart and soul into the endeavor.
At the very least what he should know is that for more than a dozen years, he created a truly special place downtown that served the community well and helped define the town’s character. That’s no small feat.
But what the public must also understand is that such recognition doesn’t pay the bills, doesn’t keep the doors open. If we want to nourish such character in our community, we have to support it.
As the market does, something new will occupy that space. Adam Shafer, of Shafer’s Market over on College Street, has already worked out a lease agreement with Nedde to move into the space and open what he will call the Daily Grind in early September. He plans to extend hours into the evening as well as have a beefed up breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. He says he’ll keep the coffeehouse appeal, but the very nature of a restaurant will create faster turnover of the seats and tables, and, hopefully, he’ll be able to keep the doors open.
But go back to Carol’s story and read between the lines — about the struggle to make ends meet, about the passion Melanson had for what he was able to provide, about the customers who loved the place more than their own homes, and, now, about the loss the town faces.
It’s a story that repeats itself as residents choose to bypass local businesses and shop online, as convenience upstages community. Can we change the story’s ending? Perhaps, but only if we are serious about putting community first.

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