After Decades of Stability, Downtown Hanover Retail Is in a State of Flux

By John Lippman

Valley News Business Writer

Published: 10-12-2018 12:20 PM

Hanover — College towns are often known for placid stability.

Storefronts and sidewalks would remain unchanged for decades, a testament to the enduring strength of tradition and settled habits insulated from a changing world.

But the realization that even venerable Hanover is no longer shielded from the economic and technological changes that have altered the retail landscape since the turn of the millennium became painfully obvious two weeks ago with the announcement that the nearly 150-year-old Dartmouth Bookstore would close by the end of the year.

College towns and bookstores have always gone together like peanut butter and jelly: It is hard to conceive of a more satisfying and nourishing combination of two complementary ingredients. The symbiotic relationship seemed impervious to the fickle whims of taste and fashion.

However, downtown Hanover merchants and property owners said the decision to close the bookstore is simply the most glaring example of subtle shifts in the town and the broader Upper Valley that have been occurring piecemeal for several years.

Since 2012, at least 22 stores, businesses and restaurants on or adjacent to Hanover’s South Main Street have closed their doors.

The trend began in 2012 with the closing of boutique Rosey Jekes, followed by sportswear store The Mountain Goat in 2013 and then longtime downtown staples Eastman Pharmacy and College Supplies in 2014.

They were followed by the closing of apparel stores Rare Essentials, Essentials for Men and Clay’s in 2015.

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Then in 2016 the salon Hilde’s closed, and 2017 saw the departure of restaurants Everything But Anchovies and Thai Orchid.

Finally, this summer, it was craft store Folk.

The most recent restaurant to close, The Canoe Club, gave barely 24-hours’ notice last month.

More distressingly, however, the closings have not been accompanied by the virtuous cycle where new enterprises supplant the old: During the same multiyear period, only five new retail stores opened — one of which, clothier Rambler’s Way, itself closed after only 17 months in business.

The reasons for each closing may be more singular than universal, according to downtown merchants and community officials.

In many cases, longtime owners reached their 60s and simply decided to retire.

“I don’t think you can point to any one reason why businesses close,” said Tracy Hutchins, executive director of the Hanover Chamber of Commerce. “Even so, the nature of retail is changing. People like to sit in their pajamas and order things online and that makes it really difficult, when you’re a store.”

Indeed, fundamental shifts in how consumers buy everything from everyday necessities such as clothes to special-occasion purchases like gifts has been dramatically reshaped by digital technology, even in semirural communities like the Upper Valley, where change comes slowly and is not always welcome.

“The formula for retail stores in Hanover used to be one-third of the business came from Dartmouth students on campus, one-third from tourists and visitors, and one-third from Upper Valley residents,” said Jay Campion, whose family has been involved in the town’s retailing sector since the early 20th century. He owns two buildings on South Main Street in Hanover, including the building in which the Barnes & Noble-owned Dartmouth Bookstore holds the lease.

“Each of those components and dynamics has changed a lot,” he said.

One of the most significant changes on town merchants, according to Campion and other retailers, occurred when Dartmouth College adopted a nearly six-week break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s several years ago, emptying the campus of 4,000-plus students during the peak pre-Christmas shopping season — the month of the year when stores historically shift from the red into the black.

“When the college changed its term calendar, that had a huge impact on downtown,” said Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.

The introduction of the long holiday break also coincided with two other factors that reshaped student shopping habits.

First is the shift to online shopping, where everything from textbooks to shoes to meals — recipe kit provider Blue Apron is now reportedly one of the biggest delivers of packages to the campus — is available at the tap of a phone app. And second is the college’s offering more services, such as a King Arthur Flour cafe in the basement of Baker Library or sports apparel purchases through the athletic department.

Both developments have led to students not having to leave campus to visit downtown merchants.

“Dartmouth students don’t tend to shop retail,” Griffin said. “They do eat downtown, but except for J. Crew and Indigo, which meet their clothing niche needs, they by and large are shopping online.”

That point was underscored in 2015 when online shoe retailer Zappos delivered 1,900 boxes stuffed with free gifts — headphones, backpacks and warm-weather gear — to Hanover residents as a reward for the number of Zappos purchases that originated from the ZIP code.

Ten days later, shoe store Shoetorium on the pedestrian mall in Lebanon closed, demonstrating how a 6-year-old startup thousands of mile away in Las Vegas could undercut a 45-year-old business catering to the local community.

A walk around downtown Hanover reveals signs of how problematic enticing people into downtown businesses has become.

The second-floor space that once housed Thai Orchid restaurant, which closed in July 2017, is still vacant, as is the space on Allen Street where the longtime eatery Everything But Anchovies was located. EBA’s closed the previous May. The South Main Street storefront where the women’s clothing store Rare Essentials closed in July 2015 — it’s one of the premier locations in downtown Hanover — remained vacant for more than a year before Rambler’s Way moved into it for its brief occupancy.

The storefront formerly occupied by Amidon Jewlers in the Nugget Arcade building was not filled by another retail business. Instead, it is serving as temporary home for the Hood Museum while it undergoes renovation.

Because new retail businesses are not occupying vacant spaces soon after they become available, at least one Hanover landlord has responded by lowering the rent he charges.

Jim Rubens, who owns Hanover Marketplace on Lebanon Street, said his rents “are lower than they were in the 1990s, not even inflation-adjusted.”

He estimates he is charging 30 percent to 35 percent less that two decades ago.

“It’s called reality of the market,” said Rubens. “Do I love it? No. But it’s kept my building full.”

Rubens said that the rents in Hanover and along the Route 12A commercial corridor in West Lebanon “have converged” as the former have fallen and the latter have risen.

“The first thing tenants say is Hanover’s too expensive, ‘I can’t go there,’ ” Ruben said. “Well, take another look.”

At the same time, downtown merchants said, the closing of longtime anchor businesses such as Eastman Pharmacy, College Supplies and several apparel stores are often due to specific reasons specific to those businesses — retirement of owners or nearby alternatives such as chain drugstore CVS — rather than the prospects among all retailers.

If anything, merchants said, it is incumbent upon retailers to offer a mix of products not found in cookie -cutter chain stores if they are going to survive in an environment that is only going to become less hospitable for brick-and-mortar retailers.

Woodstock’s Farmhouse Pottery, pursuing the artisan-retail model of glassmaker Simon Pearce, will be opening its second store later this month in the space formerly occupied by Rambler’s Way, and Vicki Gohl, who owns the gift emporium Ruggles & Hunt, is currently testing the Hanover market with a “pop-up” store she opened this month in the location between the Dartmouth Co-op and Murphy’s tavern.

“I don’t think most people open a store because it’s a great commercial or profit venture,” Gohl said. “It has to do with wanting to curate a collection and respond to what people want. Part of why retail is having such a hard time is because it’s become more of a formula rather rather than a personal interaction and connection with people in helping them find what they are looking for.”

Stores where the owner takes a strong interest in selecting a line of products and gifts that are not routinely available have become a winning formula for The Lemon Tree, which on Friday opened its second location with 3,500 square feet in the Powerhouse Mall in West Lebanon.

Owner Melissa Haas originally opened The Lemon Tree in the lower level of the old Campion’s department store building in 2012 at the corner of Lebanon and South Main streets, which is now occupied by Roberts Flowers. Then she acquired the storefront around the corner that had been the longtime home of College Supplies.

Haas has managed to expand despite doing virtually no marketing, instead relying on word of mouth from a loyal customer base that she said draws from Hanover, Norwich and the region’s medical community. But she hopes the West Lebanon location, right of the interstate highway interchange and in the Route 12A shopping plaza corridor, will draw people from other areas of the Upper Valley.

“I expect the customer base will be broader in West Lebanon. We’ll see,” she said of her new store.

(The Lemon Tree is the second Hanover store this year to open a second location in West Lebanon, following consignment store The Pink Alligator in the Glen Road Plaza.)

“We shouldn’t conflate this as one big, stinking problem. Look, there are issues with being a bookstore in the U.S. in 2018,” Gohl said, referring to the long-standing problems that have plagued book selling in the age of Amazon. “I think it’s important people don’t freak out and think this is the end of Main Street.”

John Lippman can be reached at