The Small Boat Exchange, a venerable Lake Champlain business that has turned over thousands of boats through the years, was sold Friday to its two employees.
New owners Stephen Buckner and Drew Moll said they plan to expand the Shelburne business, which includes a showroom, a service area and about 175 boats a mile from the Shelburne boat launch.
They’re going to call on John Freeman, who started the business in 1984, if they need advice.
“John has been really helpful to us; he really wants us to succeed,” said Moll, 30, who has worked at the company on weekends for about four years. Buckner, 32, has worked there full-time for seven years.
Freeman, 66, said he started thinking about retiring about two years ago. He wants to buy an old fishing boat, fix it up, and do some travel by water.
“I’ve always wanted to do the rivers in Europe, and I’d love to spend a year in the Mediterranean,” Freeman said. His wife is on board with that plan, at least for short stints.
“That’s the dream while I am still hale and hearty.”
Though he never put the business up for sale, Freeman said he often heard from people who thought they might want to buy it. But if they had the money, they lacked the boating expertise; if they knew about boats, they didn’t have the money. He wanted to make sure that the buyer could keep serving his longtime customers.
“Being the small boat guys, we get a lot of people involved in boating,” he said. “We’re good at holding peoples’ hands. A lot of them stayed ... and moved on to much bigger boats."
Freeman said the Burlington area’s growing waterfront needs a place that fixes and sells modestly priced watercraft. He estimates 10,000 boats have passed through his hands.
“A lot of the other guys, you have to have $30,000 to walk in the door,” he said. “In our shop, you can have $200 and get a boat.”
In the seven years he’s been working at the exchange, Buckner said, he's seen more young people come into the store. And the rise in paddle-boarding has steered many people toward lake recreation, he said.
“It used to be people in their 60s, and now it’s a lot of people in their mid-30s, 40s,” he said. “Our generation is more about experience.”
Freeman expects to miss spending time in the store. But that doesn't mean he plans to keep dropping by.