Wild Mountain Thyme is closing after 49 years

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME at 48 Main St. in downtown Middlebury will soon close after almost 50 years of continuous ownership by one family. Pictured here, left to right, are store associate Jen Oberkirch, business owner Paula Israel and store associate Kitty Hall.

The construction never scared me, but the internet is a force. That’s what retailers are up against. The retail model as we know it is going to have to change, because stores can’t survive in this climate.
— Paula Israel

MIDDLEBURY — Wild Mountain Thyme, Main Street Middlebury’s longest running business under the same ownership, will soon close its doors. Owner Paula Israel — who since 1976 has helmed the 48 Main St. shop featuring a well-curated mix of clothing for women and children, jewelry, art, gifts and décor — said it’s time to move on.
Israel playfully cited “old age” as the reason for her decision to close the shop, which in recent days has seen a lot of customers looking to take advantage of deep discounts associated with her going-out-of-business sale. Israel, 65, hasn’t set a specific date for shuttering the store; she’ll do it when she feels she’s sold enough of her remaining inventory.
She’s able to follow her own timetable because she’s her own landlord. Israel elected not to sell the Wild Mountain Thyme business, figuring the 48 Main St. building — which she also owns — would be more marketable if unencumbered by a tenancy.
“I’ve been planning this for a few years,” Israel said of her store closure. “I wanted to be at an age where I could be on Medicare and get Social Security.”
It was in 1971 that her late partner, Allen Israel, launched Wild Mountain Thyme. The building — erected in 1790 and offering spectacular views of the Otter Creek Falls below — once housed the Middlebury Restaurant, run by Jimmy and Bernice Fucile. That gave way to a small jewelry store, run by the Bernice. Wild Mountain Thyme at first shared space with that jewelry store, with the Israels eventually buying the building around 40 years ago.
“It’s been a great spot,” Israel said. “The building has great feng shui.”
Wild Mountain Thyme has been far more than a store. It’s been a place where friendships have been forged.
“All my friends have come from knowing them with the store,” Israel said.
“So many relationships and interesting conversations, and so many therapy sessions right in that room over there,” she continued, gesturing toward the store’s checkout area. “It’s been incredible. Our customers are what made this business great. I have so much appreciation for them.”
She’s thankful to her longtime sales associates, Jen Oberkirch and Kitty Hall.
Israel cultivated her faithful clientele with an outgoing personality and a flair for stocking items that appealed to people of all ages. She’d go to trade shows and meet with sales representatives and instinctively select fashions that could appeal to women in their 20s and 30s, as well as “hip” oldsters.
“I just bought what I liked; it was really simple,” Israel said, adding, “our expansion into baby clothes a few years ago was a big shot in the arm for us.”
Like other merchants, Israel has noted a decline in sales over the past few years. While some of it might be associated with work on the downtown rail bridges project, Israel believes the main culprit is online shopping.
“If I was 45, I’d be very concerned about the internet situation,” she said. “The construction never scared me, but the internet is a force. That’s what retailers are up against. The retail model as we know it is going to have to change, because stores can’t survive in this climate.”
But at this point in her life, Israel said the paradigm shift in retail is “for the next person to figure out.”
That next person will inherit a building with a lot of potential, according to Israel, who added the structure would make a nice home if the buyer isn’t interested in pursuing retail. It has roughly 800 square feet of space on both floors. The second floor is currently used for storage.
Perhaps the next owner will be one of Israel’s many customers. There’s no shortage of those.
“We have served four generations of some families, which is incredible,” Israel said. “It’s really cool.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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