Game store owner shares his dream for the former Ben Franklin
MIDDLEBURY — Scott Gemignani is in the business of magic and fantasy; his downtown Middlebury game store, Tinker & Smithy, sells it by the box.
But some might say the latest trick up his sleeve could compete with anything that could be scripted in DungeonQuest, Battlelore, or War of the Ring.
He’s attempting to conjure the purchase of the former Ben Franklin store property at 63 Main St. and transform it into a mixture of retail, arcade, bowling alley, burger joint and affordable housing.
“I feel this is doable,” Gemignani said during a recent interview at his 72 Main St. store, located just a throw of the dice away from the now-vacant Ben Franklin building. Owner Andy Li closed Ben Franklin last summer, citing declining retail sales. Its closure marked the end of an era of sorts for Middlebury residents, who since 1943 visited the general merchandise store looking for items ranging from toys to penny candy to quilt fabric.
The 10,366-square-foot building is currently listed for sale for $825,000. The future owner(s) will also need to invest in repairs, depending on what they plan to use it for.
Gemignani doesn’t have the $825,000, nor the more than $500,000 he believes would be needed to fix and reorganize the structure into a multi-use facility.
But he has a dream. He said he also has pledges for $200,000 in seed money and the energy to track down grants and donations to turn the Ben Franklin building into what he believes would be a significant public draw and an asset to the downtown.
“We want to engage the community in investing in something that would benefit them,” Gemignani said.
He launched Tinker & Smithy four years ago in a spot off Creek Road. The store gained a nice following, which led him to relocate the growing enterprise to a downtown spot when one opened up two years ago.
Folks of all ages and backgrounds gravitate toward Tinker & Smithy, united by the common interest of gaming. Gemignani is now at a point where he’d like to grow Tinker & Smithy, both physically and in merchandise.
“We have always, in this store, had the problem of having enough space for people to come in and use our service — and also maintain enough space for retail sales and expansion,” Gemignani explained. “We would like to move into toys, for example, and carry more craft and hobby supplies.”
The store has provided a safe, fun refuge for kids after school. It’s typical to see a dozen or more youths of all economic strata seated at Tinker & Smithy’s tables, immersed in the joint conquest of a faraway kingdom or universe.
“Our services are unique, because everything we have here in the store that we sell, we also provide free for people to use,” Gemignani said. “The reason we do that is we have an interest in our community in ensuring that people who don’t have the financial ability to afford this, still get to use it.”
Gemignani sees his preferred expansion spot right outside his store window. He didn’t think he could raise the Ben Franklin purchase price on his own. But a conversation that played out over Front Porch Forum (FPF) last fall gave him hope Tinker & Smithy could find its new home as part of a another widespread want for the county’s shire town: A bowling alley.
Middlebury and Bristol both had bowling alleys, but those enterprises closed decades ago.
The FPF conversation last spring indicated support for bringing back bowling. Individual posts on the subject included:
•“‘The people’s bowling alley’ …this last posting came close to what I have been mulling over in regards to a bowling alley. I wonder about the possibility of creating a co-op bowling alley — kind of like the structure pioneered by Mad River Glen in the ski industry.” — Corey Hendrickson
•“I’m all for a bowling alley as well. A great place for all ages to have fun. And how about setting aside a few lanes for candlepin bowling. It uses lighter balls for those of us whose backs would appreciate it. Here is a brief description for those who have never played it. It’s really fun.” — Chip Mayer
•“My husband and I would also LOVE to see a bowling alley in Middlebury. We love to bowl, but don’t get to do it very often as we don’t want to travel an hour to get to an alley.” — Pam Spatafora
Gemignani believes a two-lane bowling alley could be installed affordably within the Ben Franklin building, using equipment from alleys that have closed in recent years. Along with bowling, Gemignani envisions an entertainment, retail and housing center that would feature an arcade with retro video games (to appeal to the widest audience), an eatery selling burgers and fries for less than $10, a possible new home for the Addison Central Teens center (currently based near Mary Hogan Elementary), and stores (including Tinker & Smithy).
The Ben Franklin building includes two upstairs apartments. Gemignani wants to see that space reorganized and built out into four or five affordable units, whose residents could be employed by businesses within the lower floor.
“Essentially, what we’re trying to do is build a community center in the heart of town that takes advantage of the proximity of the college,” Gemignani said.
He believes he has the right formula for businesses that could succeed at 63 Main St.
Location. Being a downtown destination for entertainment, retail and food will make the difference for people who like convenience, Gemignani believes.
“You park in town, the kids go to the arcade while mom and dad shop,” he explained. “The kids from the college need to be able to walk to this building. It’s the only way businesses are going to survive like this, is to be able to offer ‘experiences’ in addition to retail. A lot of businesses can’t do that, but we think we can do it.”
Gemignani acknowledged his effort is more of an “I” proposition than a “we,” at this point. But he’s recruiting supporters. And he’d like to see the reimagined Ben Franklin property operated as a nonprofit, overseen by a board of directors. He stressed that the nonprofit should pay full property taxes to the town of Middlebury.
The idea is off to a decent start, with $200,000 in pledges from a “silent phase” of fundraising, according to Gemignani. He’s going to beat the bushes for foundation and state grants before initiating an online gofundme campaign.
He believes he’ll need around $1.6 million to pull off the plan.
Li said he’ll listen to all offers for 63 Main St., adding his broker is now speaking with a prospective buyer. He’s also willing to lease the space, and added he’s not likely to come down much from the $825,000 asking price.
For now, Li will keep marketing his building and focus on his small Yogurt City business that continues to operate out of the 63 Main St. Yogurt City has added new products, including tea, smoothies and milkshakes, he said.
Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership, likes what she’s hearing from Gemignani.
“The most successful communities are giving people an experience of some kind that they can’t replicate through a screen,” she said. “Retail, dining and experiences will set us up for greater vitality and vibrancy for our downtown.
“I love the idea of people putting energy into something that’s a draw.”
Anyone interested in contacting Gemignani about his plan should email [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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