Time Catches Up to Lebanon Home Decor Store KindleNook

By John Lippman

Valley News Business Writer

Published: 11-19-2016 11:56 PM

Lebanon — A “step back in time” has come to an end.

KindleNook, the home decor store on High Street in Lebanon, closed up shop on Saturday, ending 30 years of selling handcrafted farmhouse furniture, folk art, penny rugs, baskets, pewter, lamps, dried flowers, candle holders and other items that evoke an era drawn from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Owner Jude Gilbert, who opened the store in 1986 in a street-level space that was formerly occupied by a beer tavern, said that “30 years is a good round figure” to bring her business to a natural end. Like all small retail stores, Gilbert in recent years has seen online shopping cut into her sales and fewer younger customers walk through the door, leaving her with a smaller and aging, although loyal, clientele.

“I love this business, but it is a lot of work and I didn’t want to train a new person,” Gilbert said, noting one of her employees retired last summer and she was looking at little annoyances ahead, such as getting a new credit card reader that could read chips. Meanwhile, many of KindleNook’s longtime suppliers, mom-and-pop crafts businesses who make curios, have also closed as their owners have retired.

“I’m going to miss the customers,” Gilbert acknowledged, especially around the busy fall and festive holiday season when the shop glowed with the warmth and snugness of a Christmas tree. The store, with its scent of potpourri and mulling spice and Celtic music playing in the background, even had special “touch it” shelves built a couple feet above the floor with items lined up on it to occupy the restless little hands of children who accompanied their parents.

KindleNook occupied the ground floor of an 1897 apartment building that Gilbert and her husband, Bill Gilbert, acquired in 1979, at the time a run-down, 16-unit complex that served as “housing of last resort” for transient or hand-to-mouth tenants. Across the street there once was a tannery, operated by the E. Cummings Leather Co., that at its peak employed 300 people. An acrid smell from the plant lingered around High Street, known as a place young women would not want to venture.

To hear Gilbert describe it, KindleNook was a reaction against the practices of modern retailing with fluorescent lighting and pop music piped through the speaker system and staff wearing headsets like engineers in Mission Control at NASA. Instead, the store was lighted by lamps that cast a soft glow, the ceiling was low to reflect a country tavern-like human scale, the display tables, cabinets and checkout counter were all hand-built by Bill Gilbert with recycled materials.

KindleNook did not even have an electronic cash register because it would have been out of place within the atmosphere she was trying to create, Gilbert said. She tried using an antique register for a while, “but the thing made such an obnoxious noise” that she got rid of it, Gilbert said. Sales were “rung up” with a hand calculator and the cash box was a wooden drawer built into the counter by Bill Gilbert.

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“People would come in for gifts or just conversation,” Gilbert said, or just to see the store’s cat, Cinnamon, who lived to 18 years. “I often said the shop was a ‘step back in time.’ That was important to us. We live in such a fast-paced world. You could see the relief in people when they walked through the door and sighed.”

The Gilberts became shop owners in midlife and after they had already established themselves as careful renovators of apartment housing in Lebanon. Earlier, Jude and Bill Gilbert each worked as technicians at laboratories at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Although Bill Gilbert, raised by a single mom who had her own laundry business in Hanover, had become chief technician in the virology lab, “we didn’t have the advanced education to go further,” said Jude Gilbert, who grew up in Windsor.

So the couple, initially in their spare time, began buying run-down apartment buildings, fixing them up and using one as security for the loan for the next. “We decided we liked working together, doing that kind of work,” Gilbert said, noting they carved out a specialty in the process.

“We have some sort of condition for buying old houses,” Gilbert laughed. “I don’t know what it is.”

Today, the couple and their son, Aaron Gilbert, an attorney, have built a mini real estate empire in the city through the ownership of 10 buildings — including five on High Street — located on West Street, Jordan Court and Guyer Street, totaling 38 apartments.

The family, frugal New Englanders, frequently use recycled materials when renovating their buildings: a large front door bought for $10 from Mascoma Savings Bank, for example, brick salvaged from the tannery across the street, windows discarded from one of the Hartford schools.

Ghostly items from the past were discovered by the Gilberts during the building’s renovation: In the closet of one room was left a detached wooden leg, petite in length, as if it had belonged to a child. “There’s an old story about a car rolling down the street, pinning a girl who lost her leg. We wondered maybe if it was hers, but we really have no idea,” Gilbert said.

As for what happens next, Gilbert said, she plans to adapt KindleNook into an art studio where she can paint — an avocation that she has pursued over the years with skill. Next October she plans to reopen the shop again for a month to feature the works of Upper Valley artisans.

Gilbert called KindleNook “not a lucrative business, but it paid for itself.”

More important than the bottom line, Gilbert said, the store “kept an artistic and creative presence here” and provided an outlet for craftmakers to sell their wares. Moreover, KindleNook reflected the Gilbert family’s own values of cherishing a way of life now for many overtaken by modernity.

“This was our story and we lived it,” Gilbert said.

John Lippman can be reached at 603-727-3219 or jlippman@vnews.com.]]>