New owners signal a new era at Ripton Country Store
RIPTON — Folks making their daily visit to the Ripton Country Store are getting some “change” for the first time in 42 years.
Stepping across the rustic threshold is still akin to breaching a time portal leading to an early 20th century general store, where you got your mail and your food staples, crowded onto a maze of shelves.
Need help? The friendly store shopkeepers provided personal attention and knew you by name.
For more than four decades, Dick and Sue Collitt fit that “friendly shopkeeper” definition to a T. But all good things must come to an end, and on Monday, Nov. 19, the Collitts officially handed over the keys to Ripton’s beloved store to another husband-and-wife team — Eva Hoffman and Gary Wisell.
Oh, and let’s not forget their diminutive female terrier mix, interestingly named “Floyd,” who this winter will often be seen curled up next to the cast-iron wood stove that has warmed many a visitor since the store first opened in 1879.
The couple is excited to serve as the new stewards for the store, and their top priority is music to Ripton residents’ collective ears: No major changes.
“Forty-two years (the Collitts) were here,” Wisell noted. “They must have done something right.”
The Ripton Country Store gig represents a homecoming for Wisell, who was born and raised in Middlebury. He’s a member of the Middlebury Union High School class of 1978. Wisell left the area in 1983, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving 20 years in Norfolk, Va., where he met his wife.
“I’m the flatlander,” Hoffman said with a smile.
Wednesday was the couple’s third day running the store without training wheels. The Collitts had provided them with two weeks of on-site tutelage on the ins and outs of running a 139-year community institution that generations of Riptonites have relied upon for purchases ranging from gummie worms to gardening gloves — with a free side of town news.
“(The Collitts) were mentoring us, making sure we’re learned the ropes,” Hoffman said.
DICK COLLITT, RIGHT, who owned the Ripton Country Store with his wife Sue from 1976 until this month, chats with new owner Gary Wisell while buying a few things this past Wednesday.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
True to their promise of being hands-on owners, Hoffman, Wisell and Floyd have moved into the apartment above the store. They are certainly snug.
“We moved a three-bedroom house, an attic and a basement into a two-bedroom apartment,” Wisell said. “That was interesting.”
The new store keeps had been sporadic customers prior to becoming the new owners.
“Gary and I have ben coming up here since we first met, and we’ve been together since 1992,” Hoffman said. “The first time I ever came up here with him, I know we stepped foot in this store. We’ve romanticized moving back to Vermont since the get-go.”
But the timing was never right, until recently. Hoffman, a longtime educator, was committed to her students at Western Branch Primary School in Chesapeake, Va. After retiring from his disbursing clerk job with the Navy in 2008, Wisell went into the landscaping business, accumulating some steady clients.
In short, they had to be content with mere visits to the Green Mountain State.
That all changed around a year ago, though, when both Hoffman and Wisell had arrived at a point where they were ready to begin a new professional venture together. Both are personable and gregarious, so a customer service-type venture seemed a propos.
Their new adventure took root this past April when Wisell’s eyes danced across a former classmate’s Facebook post confirming the Ripton Country Store was for sale.
“We both obviously knew the property, that it was iconic and special — the real deal,” Hoffman said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’”
Wisell quickly contacted the Collitts, but were crestfallen to learn that it was already under contract.
“We figured we weren’t supposed to have it yet, that it wasn’t our turn,” Hoffman said.
A few months went by, and the couple decided to check out other potential general store opportunities in Vermont.
“We actually looked at (a store for sale) in East Poultney, but it wasn’t right for us,” Wisell said. “We knew (the Ripton store) was. My uncle Tom Wisell had been coming for most of his life to get his mail. He was friends with Dick and Sue. My family had history with the store.”
A history they will now help shape, due to the fact that a deal between the Collitts and the original would-be buyers fell apart.
In July, Wisell noted the Ripton store was back on the market.
It seemed like Wisell and Hoffman were destined to own the store.
“We called Dick and Sue and the Realtor immediately, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since then,” Hoffman said of the painstaking process of making an offer, closing on a deal and relocating all of their possessions from Virginia to Ripton.
“It’s been a very busy time for us,” Hoffman said.
And they know they’ll continue to be busy, continuing the store’s reputation of maintaining long hours with few days off.
“Gary and I have had the opportunity to travel a lot and we’ve done a lot, so it’s not like we’re coming here and are going to feel like we’re getting ‘bogged down,’” Hoffman said. “It just fits. It’s the right time right now for us to be settled in and let our friends come to us.”
They’ll make a lot of new friends during the months and years ahead as they become more familiar with their regular clientele.
“There are people who have come up to us and told us how important this store is, that’s it’s more than a store; it’s the hub of the community,” Hoffman said.
Ripton residents have greeted them with open arms. The community held a special potluck dinner on Nov. 10, at which they welcomed Hoffman and Wisell, and offered many thanks to the Collitts, who will continue to reside in the village.
“The folks here in Ripton have been tremendous,” Wisell said.
CHANGES TO THE STORE?
He recalled how their friends in Virginia asked a lot of questions upon learning the couple had acquired the Ripton store.
One of those questions was easy to answer.
“‘So, are you guys going to change the name?’ they asked us,” Wisell recalled with a chuckle. “We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll change the name — if we want to get run out of town with pitchforks and chainsaws.’”
Wisell and Hoffman have no plans to change the style and substance of a store that, to the delight of shoppers, bears the anachronistic wrinkles of a bygone era — though Wisell is touching up some of the interior paint. The antique post office boxes will remain, as will the old stove. Customers will continue to add wear to floorboards that have developed a well-earned patina under the footsteps of clients that have included celebrities ranging from Dan Akroyd to Robert Frost.
Changes? The couple plans to sell pizza slices, breakfast sandwiches and add a few new products, including some wines.
Wisell recently discovered a metal box in the store containing dusty accounting records dating back to the 1890s.
“It was so funny to see the prices back then,” he said.
Twenty-six cents went a long way.
RIPTON COUNTRY STORE will retain much of its varied stock, say new owners Eva Hoffman and Gary Wisell, shown with their terrier, Floyd, in the business they recently purchased.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
Dick Collitt believes the new owners will do just fine.
“Sue and I both feel we found the right people for the store,” he said. “We’re happy with the new proprietors.”
The Collitts are still getting used to suddenly having some much time on their hands. But they’re looking forward to visiting family in Colorado later this winter.
“It definitely feels different not being down there,” Collitt said.
He gave a shout-out to fellow Ripton resident and Middlebury College scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben, who became part of the effort to recruit a solid buyer for the store. He made a persuasive pitch through a March 30 editorial in The New York Times that helped generate 75 inquiries and a lot of publicity for the real estate listing, according to Collitt.
“I’ve written a great many completely unsuccessful op-ed pieces in my lifetime,” McKibben said via an email reply to the Independent. “So it’s very nice, every time I go to get the mail, to be reminded that sometimes words can play a small role in helping good things to happen.”
Indeed, the transaction seems to be working out well for everyone.
Hoffman is still pinching herself.
“Last Saturday I had to run some errands, and I was driving down to Middlebury and I just got the biggest grin on my face, seeing how beautiful the snow was and the mountains…” she said. “We’ve experienced all this before, but now it’s home.
“I’m happy as I can be. And I get emotional about it, because it really is a blessing,” Hoffman said, struggling to hold tears back. “This is going to be an amazing part of our journey. It’s perfect.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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