- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Marc Sherman and Trudy Trombley (front) with (from left) Abby Sherman, Denise Earley, Erin Welch and Angela Peterson
In the first week of June 2020, Marc Sherman wasn't sure whether his business, Stowe Mercantile, would survive until the Fourth of July. The country store on Main Street in downtown Stowe, which sells mostly locally produced foods, candies, apparel, jewelry and souvenirs, was facing the worst crisis in its 32-year history. Revenues had plummeted to 30 percent of normal.
Much of Stowe Mercantile's inventory is specialty food items, which had been purchased the previous December and January but couldn't be sold while the store was shuttered for 10 weeks. Eventually, most passed their expiration dates; even the local food pantries couldn't accept them. The boutique's line of women's spring apparel, also purchased during the winter, had a longer shelf life, but even that sat unsold through its intended season.
A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan covered some losses, Sherman said, but the business continued to hemorrhage cash.
"We need action very quickly," he announced at a press conference on June 2, when a coalition of Vermont business owners urged state lawmakers to release much-needed economic aid. "I can save 15 jobs supporting 15 families ... For my business, it's a matter of weeks, not months."
What a difference a year makes.
"We bounced back pretty well and had a fairly strong winter," Sherman said in an interview last week. "It's still off, and there are fewer people in town. But the average [number of] transactions is up, and the people who are here are spending more."
Sherman knows something about economic ups and downs. Prior to opening Stowe Mercantile in the late 1980s, which he now co-owns with his partner, Trudy Trombley, he was a dairy farmer in upstate New York near Utica. Then, after three years of managing a ranch in Colorado, Sherman got a degree in dairy management before ultimately giving up on farming and moving to Vermont.
Today, Stowe Mercantile is a family-run business in the true sense of the phrase. Trombley, who joined the company in 1999, has three daughters working there: Denise, a jewelry designer who manages Stowe Mercantile and its clothing boutique, as well as the company's website and marketing; Erin, who oversees merchandising and purchasing; and Angela, who handles graphic art for garments, souvenir mugs and other memorabilia.
Sherman's youngest daughter, Abby, a locally renowned Americana musician and songwriter, develops specialty food items in the Stowe Mercantile Kitchen, the company's commercial food production facility. She's created ready-to-eat crackers and tortilla chips, as well as 25 different mixes for DIY muffins, popovers, crêpes and griddle cakes. According to Sherman, Abby's products have been selling like, well, hotcakes.
But this time last year, he recalled, a recovery seemed anything but ready-made. Having closed the store even before the governor issued his "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order last March, Sherman wasn't sure how soon visitors would return.
"Would anyone be traveling? Would anyone be in town? Would we have to close down and liquidate our inventory, or what?" he remembered thinking. "We just didn't know."
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Stowe Mercantile
For a time, Sherman said, it looked like the company might go under. He financed the payroll and overhead out of his own pocket, though he emphasized that it was far from a solo effort. A number of his vendors and suppliers worked with him on extending invoice dates, cutting freight costs and defraying other expenses.
"Everyone chipped in a little bit, and it allowed a lot of businesses like ours to remain viable," he said.
By mid-July, normally the store's busiest season, customers began trickling in and sales picked up. In the fall, Stowe Mercantile secured its second PPP loan — Sherman declined to reveal how much he received — and by the winter holiday shopping season, he rehired two employees who'd been laid off.
Though 2020 ended better than Sherman had initially expected, things remained tenuous heading into the normally slow winter season.
"For a while, it wasn't about making money. It was just trying to keep turning inventory and keep the cash flow going," he said.
If the pandemic had any silver lining, Sherman added, it was in the lessons they learned as a business. For one, he said, "We'll forever be conscious of our inventory levels and our perishables."
Ditto for staffing levels, which they watch more closely. And like many businesses, Stowe Mercantile used COVID-19 as an opportunity to reach out to customers via email and significantly expand online sales.
By most measures, the return of visitors this summer looks promising compared to last year, but it's still off from 2019 levels. According to lodging survey data from the Stowe Area Association, the town's business marketing organization, room occupancies for May are down 59 percent compared to 2019; bookings for June through August are also off 42 percent from two years earlier. But by any measure, visitations are way ahead of last year.
Rachel Vandenberg, co-owner of the 39-room Sun & Ski Inn and Suites, Stowe Bowl and the Stowe Golf Park, saw her businesses pummeled by the pandemic, with revenues down as much as 75 percent last summer. About the only bright spot, she noted, was the miniature golf course, as Vermonters sought safe and socially distanced outdoor activities. This year, the golf park opened a month earlier than usual.
But as spring and summer bookings inch up, Vandenberg said that she's looking forward to sending guests down the road to Stowe Mercantile — and shopping there herself.
"The store has a lot of great gifts," she said. "Whenever we're going to buy a birthday gift or something, that's always one of the places I think of going."
For his part, Sherman is cautiously optimistic about the coming months.
"All signs point to a strong summer," he said. "We're breathing a sigh of relief that we got through it all."