Once upon a time, a village named White River Junction fell asleep a weary railroad laborer and woke up an artist.
The story begins about 160 years ago, when White River Junction, which is part of the town of Hartford, first became something more than the confluence of the White and Connecticut rivers. The railroad system had just laid tracks through town, bringing with it the twin gifts of commerce and development. Wholesale purveyors of paper, baked goods and groceries flocked to the heart of the village to take advantage of its distribution potential. But with the completion of Interstates 89 and 91 in 1969, and the rise of the trucking industry, White River turned from a junction to an exit. The historic, once-bustling downtown district entered an extended pause, from which it has only recently emerged.
Now, signs of new life are everywhere: the Tip Top Media and Arts Building, with its 40 artists’ studios and businesses; the 3-year-old Center for Cartoon Studies; the Cooler Gallery; Northern Stage’s 245-seat Briggs Opera House; and the Main Street Museum.
And there’s Revolution, an eco-chic clothing boutique that’s become not only a symbol of the town’s resurgence but one of the central agents of its vitality.
Kim Souza, a petite, wide-eyed and energetic 39-year-old, founded the store in 2002 as an urban thrift shop. She had just finished a stint in the travel industry, organizing seasonal field trips for kids, when she had the opportunity to choose a new career. She picked a clothing business “not because I had any expertise or background in retail,” she says, standing under a chandelier in Revolution that looks like a giant piece of costume jewelry, “but because I was sort of a thrift-shop junkie.”
Over the next four years, this single mother — her son will be 8 in June — worked so hard to keep the store going, holding five jobs at one point, that she became the subject of a story in The Valley News about the patchwork economy. A natural community organizer, Souza presented Revolution not just as a thrift store but as a place for the growing number of local artists to hang out. She organized inclusive and whimsical fashion shows that broke nearly every rule of the clothing industry. She hosted poetry readings and invited punk bands to perform in the store.
Despite the throngs of Upper Valley residents who loved Revolution, Souza finally had to close the shop in September 2006. But not before she launched what she thought would be her last guerrilla marketing campaign: putting the business up for sale on eBay.
Maybe it was the desperation inherent in the online auction of a community institution, or maybe it was the success of the fashion show that prefaced the eBay move. But an angel investor quickly swooped in to save the day.
Ann Johnston, 49, and her daughter Simi, 17, loyal Revolution shoppers from South Woodstock, were saddened by the closing of their favorite clothing store. Ann and her husband Pritam Singh own a major real estate development company in the Florida Keys, but they call Vermont home. Simi heard about Revolution’s being auctioned on eBay and, as Ann tells it, “came home and said, ‘Dad! There’s this store for sale on eBay; let’s buy it!’” Singh said it would be tough to buy the business without someone to run it. And then, Ann says, “The light bulb went on in my head.”
Ann Johnston has short blond hair and a serene, contented attitude that seems a bit out of place amid the bling and music and colors of Revolution. However, she also bears a degree in fashion merchandising that she never had the chance to use — until she and Simi became Souza’s business partners in late 2006. Before embarking on the new relationship, Johnston says that she “got together with Kim and had a cup of coffee and said, ‘What if I put some capital in, and some of my vision and buying expertise and some of my retail background, and you get to be there every day and manage the store again?’”
It was an offer Souza couldn’t refuse. After extensive renovations to its original location at 26 North Main Street, Revolution “2.0” opened in February 2007. “The whole town showed up for opening night,” Souza says, noting just how important this community has become to her.
The new incarnation of Revolution looks simultaneously trendy and staid. It occupies a prominent corner in the walkable village district and has its name in big, widely spaced caps on its storefront. Inside, burgundy walls enclose racks of vintage clothes, recycled and rebuilt garments, new eco-conscious duds and shoes. The floor bears a mod spiral design, the quirky photo portraits were done by Johnston’s stepdaughter Siri Kaur, and, toward the back, customers can get goodies from an espresso machine and custom T-shirt bar.
“It’s been a blessing and a curse keeping the name Revolution,” Souza says. While the name recognition has been nice, she explains, “our big problem has been getting people to not consider us a thrift shop. If anything, we’re a thrift boutique, but we’ve got more boutique than thrift.” The major difference between the old and the new Revolution is that the latter offers clothing made by a number of independent — sometimes solo, often local — designers.
Most of these pieces feature recycled material, like that in the designs of Made Marion and Julie Strawitz, both of whom reside in the Upper Valley. “Made Marion is our biggest-selling local, independent artist,” Johnston says, adding that the designer, Marion Taylor Settle, makes clothing exclusively for Revolution. Johnston picks a gray, curvaceous cardigan off a rack. “This was originally three other sweaters. She collects sweaters from thrift shops, rips them apart, washes them, hand-cuts them, pins them on a dress form and hand-sews every piece,” Johnston explains. “So every piece is like its own sculpture.” The prices for Made Marion dresses and tunics range from $90 to $150. “I don’t know anywhere else that sells anything like this,” she adds excitedly.
Strawitz, 51, lives in Norwich and makes “rebuilt” garments; for example, an old jean jacket with a funky upholstery yolk, or a boring cotton shirt that she “Franken-sewed” into a dress with rayon knit, snakeskin trim and colorful prints. She has a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and spends most of her non-sewing time making mosaic tables and mirrors, some of which are sold at the Stowe Craft Gallery.
Strawitz began contributing garments to Revolution when the new store first opened, answering a “Calling All Sewers” email — Souza sent the message to her 1200-strong list in anticipation of the store’s new stylistic direction. A number of local designers responded, crafting pieces on consignment. “I just wanted to be involved in it in some way,” Strawitz says, “because the vibe there is so great.” She suggests that Revolution can “fill the gap” between “stores such as J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s on the affordable end of the spectrum, and the boutiques in Hanover on the other end.”
For Dave Tofel, 29, Revolution fills the cultural gap that opened in his life when he moved from Brooklyn to Hartford Village two years ago. He’s an engineer who designs and installs custom photovoltaic energy systems and solar water heaters in the Upper Valley. Tofel says he’s in the store, either drinking coffee or shopping, at least a few times per week. “I just sort of like the culture that it encourages,” he says. “There’s not too many places up here that are young and vibrant.”
Tofel shops at “the Rev” for “unique, funky vintage shirts; something that has a little character to it,” he says. That’s one of the standards Souza and Johnston use when making their selections for the store, but the key “criteria that [the clothes] have to meet is that there has to be a sort of sustainable or ethical method of production,” Souza explains, “whether it’s supporting an individual artist or using organic fibers.” By way of example, Souza points to a display of Tom’s Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need in Argentina or Africa for every pair sold in stores.
Although the new store’s styles and selection make it quite distinct from its original incarnation, Revolution maintains its role as a community institution. Souza still organizes two fashions shows per year, which take place in the Tip Top building, and the store hosts seven or eight poetry readings annually, too. For Souza, all this work helps accomplish a modest but crucial goal. She’d like others to share the sentiment expressed by her email signature: “White River Junction . . . It’s not so bad!”