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Column: Marcia Boutin Had a Vision: To Be in Service to Her Neighbors

  • Marcia D. Boutin Drop, who founded the organization that eventually became Listen Community Services, is seen in 1972. Boutin, who grew up in the city, died in 2010 at the age of 73 after years of failing health. (Valley News - Tom Ahern) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Tom Ahern

  • Listen administrators, employees, guests and shoppers cheer after Laurel Stavis, chair of the board of directors, cut the ribbon to officially open the new Listen Thrift Store on the Miracle Mile in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 5, 2018. The 34,000 square-foot building consolidates inventory from the downtown Lebanon store and the White River Junction furniture store and centralizes donations to one location. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

For the Valley News
Published: 10/20/2018 10:20:04 PM
Modified: 10/20/2018 10:20:05 PM

It has been gratifying over the past many days, since the opening of Listen’s new anchor store on the Miracle Mile in Lebanon, to see the hordes of cars parked not only in the parking lot of the former Bridgman’s Furniture store, but on the lawn as well, and along the side of Route 4. The nonprofit service organization, with other outlets in White River Junction and West Canaan, is a true gem — offering everything from low-cost used furniture to low-cost used clothing to free hot meals.

The only shame is that Marcia Boutin isn’t here to see it.

Without Marcia Boutin, there would be no Listen.

Back in 1972, the organization was nothing more than an idea in Boutin’s head. She envisioned an entity that could help low-income people in need in her hometown of Lebanon, whatever their need might be. And that vision had a name: Lebanon In Service To Each Neighbor. Now known as Listen Community Services, her idea has endured — and then some. The group serves not only residents of Lebanon, Hartford and Canaan, but anyone in the Upper Valley who wants to drive, or take the bus, to any of its locations for any of its services.

It would be enough to make Boutin smile. But then again, she was always smiling. As many problems as were brought her way, as many sorrowful situations that she helped folks to navigate, she always did it with a twinkle in her eye. And, oh yes, a bandana on her head.

I got to know Boutin well as a newbie reporter in early 1972, fresh out of the University of New Hampshire and covering the Lebanon beat. By that time, the battle to site a low-income housing project on South Main Street in West Lebanon was already in full swing.

The previous November, the Lebanon City Council, by a vote of 6-2, had passed a motion to change the zoning on South Main Street from residential general to residential single-family, effectively blocking the project.

An editorial two days later in the Valley News noted that “to the majority of the City Council ... low-income housing, like urban renewal, represents creeping socialism, welfare state-ism and the defeat of the American Dream. Going hand-in-hand with these beliefs is the suspicion that low-income families — the ‘poor’ — are spongers, bums and slobs.”

Well, Boutin didn’t agree. She thought these “bums and slobs” were simply victims of circumstance, or down on their luck, and she was determined to lend them a hand.

Thus was born Listen, with its stated purpose “to induce people with problems to help themselves” — initially via a co-op food-buying club and promoting low-income housing. I sat beside her at many, many meetings of the Lebanon Housing Authority, held in the basement of Rogers House, and at City Council meetings, as she advocated for the South Main Street project.

The zoning was eventually re-changed to allow for the project, which was named Romano Circle in honor of Buddy Romano, former Lebanon Housing Authority executive director, although it just as easily could have been called Boutin Circle.

While all that was transpiring, Boutin also determined that Lebanon’s low-income population needed more than a housing project. She pestered Ernie Dion into letting her house Listen in a small side room at his ski shop on Hanover Street Extension.

It was exceedingly modest compared with the new Miracle Mile digs, but it was a start. She was assisted by her mother, Pearl, her sister Kathleen and legal advocate Bill Weismann.

Boutin began soliciting used clothing to resell, or give away, to those who needed it. As her oldest son, Andy, a longtime employee of Gateway Motors, recently recalled, “It was a shoestring operation, for sure. Even after she opened the store there wasn’t enough room, so people would drop off their donations at our house (on River Street in Lebanon) and she would wash it, dry it and fold it there.”

He concedes that he and his three siblings often took a back seat to their mom’s many Listen-oriented endeavors, which also included a food pantry, community gardens, a canning operation, a youth drop-in center and, after a few years, a move to the former rooming house on Hanover Street that now contains Listen’s offices.

“It was definitely a sore spot for us,” he said. “She sacrificed time with her family for what she saw as the greater good. But I was involved. In fact, I painted the first sign at that first store. And look at Listen these days, with all those cars parked on the grass. I’d like to see their bottom line now. I’ll bet it’s pretty darn good.”

Boutin and Listen’s board of directors eventually clashed over her dominant personality and loose way of running things, leading to a narrow vote in the late 1970s to oust her from the organization she had started.

She died in 2010 and was recognized at a well-attended service at Storrs Hill Ski Area.

“We were pretty upset at the time about that vote,” said Andy Boutin, “but in hindsight, she didn’t follow the rules. She would commingle the funds. As a nonprofit, you can’t just take $20 out of the till to help somebody who really needed it. If somebody couldn’t pay their rent and it was $200, she’d just pay it. She was a maverick. But it was still a sad ending to what she had built.”

As I looked at the front page photograph of the new Listen store’s grand opening, with everyone smiling and cheering, I would like to think that, had she lived, Marcia Boutin and Listen might have reconciled and she might have been there among the cheering assemblage, wearing her bandana, with a twinkle in her eye over what she had wrought.

Dick Nelson, of Lebanon, was a staff writer at the Valley News from 1972-75 and assistant sports editor from 1975-76. He has been publisher of Vermont Builder/Architect Magazine for the past 24 years.




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