Editorial: An Alarming Spate of Store Closings in Hanover

  • A person crosses South Main Street in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

What’s killing retail in Hanover? The internet? Dartmouth College? Old age?

All three are implicated, as staff writer John Lippman detailed in the Sunday Valley News this week. More than 20 stores, businesses and restaurants in or near the South Main Street shopping district have closed since 2012, and they soon will be joined by Dartmouth Bookstore, a landmark on the town’s retail landscape for nearly 150 years. Barnes & Noble, which owns and operates the store, is pulling the plug at year’s end after failing to reach agreement on a new lease with its landlord. This raises the unhappy prospect, unheard of until recently, that a town that is home to an elite educational institution will be without a signature bookstore that sells new works in many fields and carries an extensive array of classics.

Just as alarming, Lippman reported, new enterprises have been slow to fill the void created by the closings. Only five new retail stores opened in the same area during the same time period. Some retail spaces have been vacant for months or even years.

To be sure, some observers believe that reports of the impending death of retail are greatly exaggerated. “I think it’s important people don’t freak out and think this is the end of Main Street,” said Vicki Gohl, owner of Ruggles & Hunt, a gift store with shops in Walpole, N.H., and Brattleboro, Vt. She is testing the retail waters in Hanover with a “pop-up” store that opened this month near the Dartmouth Co-op. And Woodstock’s Farmhouse Pottery is also showing confidence, bringing its artisan-retail model to a prominent space on South Main Street later this month.

And in fairness, a number of the closings are attributable to longtime owners of signature shops reaching retirement age. But it is perhaps notable that in those cases, new owners did not step in to take over the enterprises and keep them vibrant for a new generation.

That’s certainly understandable in today’s challenging bricks-and-mortar retail environment, in which local stores have been abandoned by droves of shoppers lured by the convenience and low prices of shopping on the internet. The hidden price they pay, of course, is the hollowing out of their downtowns.

In Hanover’s case, this trend has been compounded by a change in Dartmouth College’s academic calendar that emptied the campus of most of its 4,000 students for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s — the prime pre-Christmas shopping season on which many retailers depend for profitability. “When the college changed its term calendar, that had a huge impact on downtown,” said Town Manager Julia Griffin. A secondary factor is that the college is itself offering more services and goods on campus, meaning students have less reason to go downtown.

But retail stores in Hanover also depended for many years on a loyal customer base throughout the Upper Valley. A danger of the current situation is that Upper Valley residents who used to shop regularly in Hanover at such stores as Rosey Jekes or Folk or Serry’s or Dartmouth Bookstore will get out of the habit unless new, attractive stores and restaurants replace the venerable ones they once patronized.

Is the situation hopeless? Hardly. But landlords who want to fill their buildings may have to concede that the days of sky-high commercial rents in Hanover are over, as Jim Rubens, owner of Hanover Marketplace on Lebanon Street, has concluded. He told Lippman that he is charging 30 to 35 percent less than a couple of decades ago. “Do I love it?” said Rubens. “No. But it’s kept my building full.”

Despite all the challenges, some small stores all over New England have found a way forward, often by carrying unusual goods not replicated in every chain store — especially ones with an organic connection to local producers. What these enterprises have in common is that they bear the stamp of the individual proprietor’s interests, taste and personality; shoppers have the opportunity to enter that world when they come through the door.

Dartmouth, the town and its business leaders all have a big stake in the vibrancy of downtown and a role to play in seeking out such enterprises, persuading them to open stores in Hanover and publicizing their presence. No doubt that would be time consuming and frustrating in many instances. But even a low success rate could produce enough new retail stores to reinvigorate what was once a prime shopping destination in the Upper Valley.