Bottom Line: Tunbridge may soon go from no general stores to two


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-29-2022 7:47 PM

The small-town general store is hardly thought to be a growth industry. The business in recent years, in both Vermont and New Hampshire, has been marked by closings and abandonments.

In few Upper Valley towns was this more evident than in Tunbridge, which was once served by two general stores — the Tunbridge Store in the village and the North Tunbridge General Store 2 miles up Route 110 — but both closed, leaving townsfolk inconvenienced when they needed to fill up on gas or grab a carton of eggs, a six-pack or a sandwich.

But Tunbridge may soon be a two-store town again.

John Houston, a Los Angeles filmmaker who relocated to Vermont during the pandemic, has purchased the Tunbridge Store building from Scott Terami, who stopped operating the store in 2019.

The store was put on the market last year with an asking price of $349,000, and the Vermont property transfer tax return filed with the town shows Houston purchased it for $295,000.

In recent weeks, Terami has been holding a “liquidation” of the building’s eclectic contents — vintage radios, antique furniture, wicker baskets, classic Schwinn bicycles, many of which he picked up at estate sales — and was hoping to wrap up and clear the way for Houston.

Houston’s purchase of the Tunbridge Store follows by a couple months the purchase of the North Tunbridge General Store up the road by Lois and Mike Gross. The longtime Tunbridge couple have been getting the store, which has been closed since 2016, ready to reopen later this month.

Houston began visiting Tunbridge in 2014, when his stepfather, Nick Nichols, acquired a couple of Anichini founder Susan Dollenmaier’s properties in a court-ordered auction after the luxury fabric products company ran onto the financial shoals of the Great Recession.

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Houston, who made Tunbridge his home with his wife, Erica, and newborn son, Jack, now resides in one of those properties on Route 110, next to which he has had built a timber frame barn from where he plans to sell produce grown in the adjoining field.

“I fell in love with the town. We’re making it our home,” said Houston, who was reached on the phone in San Diego, where he was on duty with his Navy Reserve unit.

He calls the barn as “a community space” that will also have an “agriculture purpose” — he and his wife had the religious ceremony there following a civil marriage officiated by the late Euclid Farnham — although he is still mulling ideas on how it will evolve.

The purchase of the Tunbridge Store was an opportunity that presented itself, Houston explained, but he envisions it as offering a “hot food” menu and combining that with some kind of retail element.

But at the same time, Houston says he’s going to get feedback from people in the community to find out what they would like to see at the store.

“The most important thing is that it serve the Tunbridge community. I might come from L.A., and I could create something which looks nice but doesn’t do anything good for the town,” he said. “That’s not what I want to do.”

Houston also emphasized that he is not looking to compete with the North Tunbridge Store and wants to “work in concert” with the new owners to make sure they are not cannibalizing each other’s business.

The Domino’s effect

The pandemic has been good for the pizza business. But then, when your business model is built on delivering a product directly to your door, that perhaps should not be surprising.

Demand for pizza has been so good, in fact, it is leading Keith Bell and Robert Keene, co-owners of the Domino’s Pizza franchises in West Lebanon and Hanover, to open their third location in the area.

Bell and Keene have purchased the former Kleen Laundromat on Mechanic Street in Lebanon, which has been out of use and vacant since the now-defunct Lebanon commercial cleaning company had to shut it down over an unpaid city water bill in 2018.

The two pizza moguls paid $340,000 for the nearly 2,000-square-foot building, according to property transfer records.

Bell said the building will require extensive renovation to be converted into a Domino’s before a targeted spring opening.

“It’s a complete gut job,” Bell said of the renovation work.

The additional location provides closer access to the core of downtown Lebanon where multiple new apartment complexes are being targeted for construction in coming years, Bell pointed out — and with them an expected surge in customers wanting home delivery of pizza.

“The area’s really growing,” Bell said.

At the same time Bell and Keene are opening their third Domino’s the manager of their Hanover location, Mike Chevalier, is stepping up to become a partner in the company.

“We’re big believers in moving people up from within,” Bell explained, noting they have trained entry-level employees into ownership positions at their 10 other Domino’s locations in New England.

Bell and Keene opened their first Domino’s in Claremont in 2015 before expanding to West Lebanon in 2016 and adding the Hanover location in 2018.

Contact John Lippman at