RIPTON — At the end of March, a local business had the most far-reaching for-sale notice imaginable.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Middlebury scholar-in-residence and 350.org founder Bill McKibben lauded the Ripton Country Store in an effort to help its owners find a buyer. The store has been nestled on Route 125 since 1879 and owned by the same couple, Dick and Sue Collitt, since 1976.
The Ripton Country Store serves as something of a time capsule. Upon entering, you see hundreds of old glass bottles lining the top shelf to your right, a pot-bellied stove peeking out from the back and other shelves crammed with such food necessities as Vermont maple syrup. Residents come for chit-chat and scraps of local news, as much as the “lasagna noodles, rock salt, kitty litter, meatloaf mix, clothespins, starch and cupcake papers” – to name a few of the goods listed in McKibben’s piece, which shot to the top of the New York Times’s most-emailed list of articles.
In short, little has changed over the 139 years of the store’s existence.
In the mid-1970s, after Dick Collitt spotted an ad in The Wall Street Journal for the country store, the couple and their two sons fled the Pennsylvania suburbs with the aim of unearthing a simpler life in the Green Mountains. After 42 years, they are ready to retire. Before McKibben’s piece ricocheted across the country, the store had been on the market for nearly a year without any promising offers. Since the op-ed, however, things have changed.
“The response has been tremendous,” Dick said. “The realtor has had over 50 responses from people who really think they want to buy it. He’s just a little one-man shop. I don’t even think he has a secretary and he’s doing pretty well with it.”
Indeed, interest in taking over the Ripton Country Store has emerged from all over the United States. Most of the people who have contacted the realtor are, in fact, from outside Vermont, with aspirations similar to those that the Collitts had when they purchased the store
The desire to escape the “Twittery Trumpy twitchy mainstream,” as McKibben described in his article, is a modern-day version of the unhinged 1970s, when the country was still reeling from the Vietnam War, Watergate and race riots. “The idea resonates with the people who are responding,” Dick said. “They’re seeing all this shit about trade wars and shootings and Trump and all this stuff that’s going on and Bill paints this picture of this little tiny town and this warm and fuzzy little store. And it really is true, actually! We really are out of all that crap.”
The life of Vermont country store owners may seem romantic, but McKibben did not paint a strictly idealized portrait of the Collitts’ life. He acknowledged that the hours are onerous. The store is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. It closes its doors only on Christmas. On Thanksgiving, for instance, the store is open for a few hours so locals can grab a forgotten package of stuffing or can of cranberry sauce.
The work of the Collitts does not go unnoticed by the community, however. At the annual town meeting this year, residents showed their gratitude to the store owners. Along with a tribute in the Town Report, members of the community rose for a standing ovation and a rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.”
“The town really appreciates us,” Collitt said. “Afterwards there was a cake in the shape of the store that said, ‘Thanks Dick and Sue.’”
The risk that the store might not continue in its current vein—or worse, close altogether—has residents worried, especially given the trajectory of some other local businesses that have recently fallen by the wayside. McKibben notes the importance of the country store for Middlebury as well, noting that the loss of Dog Team Tavern rocked the community.
“We really need this store to stay open for the town, and I think for the college too: I’ve been hearing from alumni all week who have stories of stopping in en route to Rikert or the Bowl or Breadloaf, and remember it fondly,” said McKibben in an interview. “After the demise of the Dog Team Tavern, a lot of the local institutions have passed on. It would be a shame to lose a real landmark.”
The lack of cell service in Ripton also means that new owners would have to be comfortable with the prospect of some separation from screens. “We don’t get cell service up here,” Collitt said. “Almost everybody is getting away from that. Most people who’ve picked up on it are doing just what we did in 1976; they’re just getting away from the suburbs and all that.”
The allure of returning to a simpler time and unplugging from myriad electronics that dominate everyday life resonated with readers, according to McKibben. “I’ve been struck by how many seemed to want some alternative to the life of screens–the fact that cell phones don’t work in Ripton seemed almost a plus, not a drawback,” he said. “I think people may be yearning for actual communities, not virtual ones.”
Some students at the college are also bracing for the impending sale of the Country Store and what it might mean for the community. Charlie Mitchell ’18 perhaps took the McKibben piece more personally than other students. As a Food Systems major with ties to the local community through Middlebury Foods, he already has a stake in place.
“When I saw the piece,” he said, “it really struck me as an opportunity—an unprecedented opportunity to flip the script on what we expect of students when they graduate and what we aspire to in our lives.”
Mitchell soon began to ponder the possibility of taking over the store with several partners. He envisions teaming up with five others and sharing the responsibility of operating the business over a 30-year period, allowing each to also pursue other endeavors.
“I think locating that uncertainty on something like a country store isn’t to fetishize the lifestyle or commodify it,” he said. “It’s to really ground our ideas for our future.”
On the cusp of entering the “real world,” a time of near-constant contemplation and questioning, the idea of a “simpler life” appealed to Mitchell as well. While he has consulted financial advisors to gauge the feasibility of buying the store, he says he is in no way ready to sign a contract for the place.
“Seniors get kind of cut loose and there’s a lot of loneliness, dissatisfaction, and struggle in that time period,” he said. “I’m not saying this is a way to run away from that struggle or to be afraid of that. But it is a total alternative vision for what life could be.”
Amelia Pollard is a direct descendant of general store owners who opened their doors in Proctorsville, Vermont in 1860.