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New Owners at Ripton Store Find Their Rural Groove

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Ripton Country Store - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Ripton Country Store

Back in Virginia, Eva Hoffmann was a technology integration specialist who worked with state-of-the-art computers in public schools. Now she spends her days operating a gilded, clamorous, World War I-era cash register behind a wooden counter at the Ripton Country Store.

The technology downgrade is one of many adjustments that Hoffmann and her husband, Gary Wisell, have made in the five months they've been running the charming combination general store, gas station and post office in Ripton village. Hoffmann and Wisell are the first new owners of the local institution, located on Route 125 between East Middlebury and Hancock, in more than four decades. It's a daunting prospect in a community as tightly knit as Ripton.

"I think everybody was a little scared of who we were going to be and how things were going to work out," Hoffmann said. "But they like us. We're OK."

For passersby, the Ripton Country Store is a Vermonty treasure chest of nostalgia. There's an antique but functioning gas pump out front, a sizeable selection of penny candy, a wall of ornate post office boxes and, in the back by the wood-burning stove and rocking chair, piles of old ledgers and newspapers that bring to life the store's 140-year history.

But for Ripton's 600 residents, who live miles from the nearest supermarket, the store is also a lifeline. Most locals pass through it at least once a day to pick up their mail, grab a half-gallon of milk and chat with the new storekeepers. Though this is their first foray into retail, Hoffmann and Wisell schmooze with customers as if they'd been doing it forever. Hoffmann, 62, is kind and warm; 58-year-old Wisell, laugh-out-loud funny. Both appear to be at ease with the near-constant stream of customers.

Along with 75 others, the Virginia couple responded to an article last spring in the New York Times that pitched this gig as one of the toughest, and most rewarding, jobs in Vermont.

"Dick and Sue Collitt are retiring, and we need someone to buy them out and take their place," the writer Bill McKibben, a Ripton resident, wrote in a March 30 op-ed appeal that he likened to a personal ad. "Because if you don't have a store, you can't really have a town." 

Although Ripton is home to more writers and professors than your typical rural Vermont burg, it's no South Burlington. Many general stores in Vermont, including those in larger communities, are struggling to keep the lights on. The one in Barnet recently shut down.

Hoffmann and Wisell knew of this particular trading post long before McKibben wrote about it. Wisell was born and raised in Middlebury until 1983, when he joined the Navy. Away from home, he stayed connected to Middlebury through his subscription to the Addison County Independent. He said he'd routinely peruse the court log in search of names he still recognized.

Wisell's uncle, Tommy Wisell, lived in Ripton and frequented the store nearly every day in the 30 years he lived halfway up the Middlebury Gap. A picture of the self-employed lumberjack holding mounted deer antlers is prominently displayed on the store counter.

"He was my cool uncle," Wisell said. "He used to come down to the house when we were kids, and he'd sit and watch cartoons with us on Saturday mornings and drink coffee. My dad would come in and say, 'Jesus Christ, Tommy, haven't you got anything better to do?' And he'd say, 'Nope.'"

Hoffmann is not from the area — her Southern twang is a dead giveaway — but has visited Vermont with Wisell almost every year since the couple met in 1992. They settled in seaside Norfolk, Va., where Gary worked as a landscaper and Eva was a longtime educator. They filled their weekends with downtown outings, good friends and live music. Their rescue dog is named for Virginia's four-day FloydFest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"I couldn't have done this even 10 years ago," said Hoffmann. "I needed to travel. I needed to see my music."

But the couple also longed for the four seasons in slower-paced New England. They began to envision the life they could have in Vermont as Hoffmann grew increasingly weary of the stress and politics of her job. She had a similar reaction to the 24-7 news about President Donald Trump: It made her want to unplug. And the move would bring them closer to Wisell's mom, who still lives in Middlebury.

The stars aligned when an old friend of Wisell's shared the McKibben op-ed on Facebook, and the couple saw that the store was for sale.

"We just looked at each other and went, you know, 'Why not?'" Hoffmann recalled.

Gary Wisell and Eva Hoffmann - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Gary Wisell and Eva Hoffmann

By the time they called, though, the Collitts had found a buyer. When that deal fell through in early July, the property went back on the market. Wisell saw it on the website BizBuySell and immediately called the Collitts. He offered them the original asking price of $225,000 for the building and business, and the older couple accepted.

So Hoffmann and Wisell had a massive yard sale, packed up what was left from their three-story Virginia home and moved north in early October, into the two-bedroom apartment above the store. Along with Floyd, the store's new canine clerk, they've spent the cold half of a year adjusting to an entirely new life and the responsibilities that come with it: working long days, feeding a wood stove, shoveling snow and salting the parking lot around the store.

"We're still in an adaptation phase," Wisell said. "It's much harder up here. I'd forgotten how much work it is to live in Vermont in the wintertime. It's kind of a startling rediscovery."

Hoffmann and Wisell's neighbors have helped lighten the load. When the power went out in the store, Riptonians came with flashlights and headlamps to help them through it. When someone drove a car into the building, sending wine bottles crashing to the floor, people came in and bought the broken bottles anyway. When it snows, a local guy plows the driveway for free an hour before the store opens at 7 a.m. (8 a.m. on weekends).

Hoffmann said she's been touched by the kindness. "The people are amazing. I really don't wanna cry, but they're just so wonderful," she said, tearing up. "People do anything for you here."

The store currently sells mainly canned and packaged goods, plus some deli items, including a wheel of cheese that Hoffmann and Wisell cut and package themselves. Lots of newspapers, too, including the New York Times. "We've had a lot of people tell us that they're just really glad we're here, and they're really glad we're going to keep the store going, because they need it," Wisell said.

Among the grateful customers is carpenter Brad Braun, who moved to Ripton 22 years ago. He recalls walking into the country store back then and saying to himself: This is how I wanna live. He's been nestled in the Green Mountain National Forest ever since.

"I'm so thrilled it's not turning into a Mac's or something like that," he said, referring to a small Vermont grocery chain with stores in Stowe and Woodstock, among other towns. "It was a little hard losing Dick and Sue. They're wonderful people. But these people have been terrific. I can't tell you how happy I've been."

Ripton resident Barry King agreed. "We miss the former storekeepers, but we're delighted to have Gary and Eva there," she said. "They have lots of ideas and energy, so it's very fun to have somebody new."

Hoffmann and Wisell have made some tweaks already: They've expanded the adult beverage section — you can get organic wine now, and Citizen Cider — and are serving hot dogs and breakfast sandwiches. "Baby steps," Hoffmann noted, as they begin to feel more comfortable making the store their own.

Future plans include a larger selection of fresh baked goods, a local produce section, pizza by the slice, and Vermont products such as postcards and calendars. The couple just ordered a selection of Bread Loaf-branded merchandise for the students who drive by Ripton on their way to Middlebury College's summer school of English.

Just one item has been discontinued: hunting magazines. No one was buying them, according to Hoffmann, but a customer did complain. "You take it with a grain of salt, you move on," she said.

"The bottom line is: We're here for this community," Hoffmann added. "I've always wanted to be a part of something that was more than making money. I see it as more of a calling or a way of life. Because you can't come down here and be like, 'I'm in a bad mood, so leave me alone.' It's not like that."

As long as she and Wisell are collecting pensions — his from the Navy, hers from the Virginia public schools — the enterprise is sustainable. Neither of them is taking a salary from the store, which does between $500 and $1,000 in sales daily. Their shared goal is for the retail operation to pay for itself.

Hoffmann has loved getting to know her customers and is surprised by how quickly she's learning everyone's names. She and Wisell have happily swapped their digital devices for face-to-face communication. That's not to say they aren't using technology; they've installed Wi-Fi in the store, which has improved connectivity enough to make it a relative hot spot in mountainous Ripton. Some travelers have found the place — and the sole gas pump within miles — while searching for a GPS signal.

The Collitts lived and worked without the internet, but their successors said they thought it would be too difficult in this day and age to do business without it. Next to the antique cash register is the store's very first laptop.

"I'm goin', 'OK, Google.' And this guy goes, 'There's a phone book right over there!'" Hoffmann said of a customer interaction. "But nobody's run us out of town."

The connection helps during the few off hours they have, too. Hoffmann still Skypes with her book club in Virginia. "We have Netflix. We have Hulu. We've got music and we've got movies. Our phones work sometimes, most of the time. I'm fine with it. And the fact that I can video chat with my buddies, that is cool," she said.

As first-time storeowners, the two are still figuring out which chores they enjoy. Hoffmann has embraced some of the morning tasks, such as turning on the ATM and the pump light before anyone comes in. In these moments of solitude, before the rest of the world awakens, she said she feels tapped into the tranquility and beauty of her new home. She also loves getting the grocery orders every week.

"When it all comes on Tuesday, I get a kick out of unpacking everything and pricing it and putting it all where it's supposed to be," she said. "I know this sounds silly, but I enjoy that part."

They're just starting to experiment with solo shifts, during which the other partner can get away, but leisure time remains elusive. Hoffmann finally made it up the road to cross-country ski at Rikert Nordic Center. Wisell looks forward to getting to Middlebury more to enjoy being home again. He expects that will happen when the job becomes more routine.

In the meantime, Hoffmann and Wisell have some well-qualified babysitters to call on when they need a break. Although retired, the Collitts live right behind the store.

"We still get a little taste of it once in a while when they need some help," said Dick Collitt. He and his wife have substituted for Hoffmann and Wisell a handful of times since they took over. "It felt good for us being back there and seeing all our old friends and customers. We actually enjoy going back and working for them."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Trading Places | The new owners of the Ripton Country Store find their rural grocer groove"

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