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Norwich Yarn Shop’s Closing Shows Changing Landscape for Small-Town Retail



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2018

Norwich — In the early 1990s, Heather Hoisington and her husband, Harland Hoisington, were looking for a way to do something with all the wool they had sheared from their flock of sheep.

So they shipped bundles of it to a mill in Maine where the wool was spun and dyed and then shipped back to them so they could sell it out of their Norwich home.

Eventually that became too much, and Heather Hoisington opened Northern Nights Yarn Shop in the center of Norwich across the street from the Marion Cross School. On Monday, after 27 years of selling fine yarns derived from sheep from Mongolia to Peru, Hoisington will sell her last skein and lock her shop’s doors for good.

She put out the word without fanfare only a few weeks earlier that she would be retiring, saddening her devoted customers, some of whom travel from as far away as Boston and Montreal to buy yarn at her cozy, two-room shop that once had been a kitchen (the brick hearth is still intact) in a 19th-century home.

After Dan & White’s general store, which opened in 1891, Northern Nights Yarns is the second-oldest business in Norwich. But despite such longevity, Hoisington described her yarn store as “an accident” that happened more by chance and opportunity than planning.

“I didn’t have a dream of opening a business, even of opening a yarn shop” she said early one morning last week before she opened doors for the store’s 35 percent-off sale. “But I knit, so it just made sense.”

Yarn shops are fast going the way of other 20th-century storefronts that once could find success in any town — from bookstores, mom-and-pop pharmacies, clothing shops and stationery stores, all stamped out by chain retailers and online shopping.

Long impervious, if not resistant, to trends in the wider world, a reckoning in the Upper Valley has occurred over the past three years; dozens of small stores have closed as their aging, longtime owners retire and no one steps forward to succeed them.

Only 11 months ago, Lebanon yarn store Country Woolens, which had been in business for more than 50 years, also closed. And a few months earlier, White River Yarns in White River Junction, which was known for the twice-weekly knitting group that met there, closed after five years in business.

“The internet has hit an awful lot of small stores,” said Deborah Hodges, who owned Country Woolens.

Hodges, of Meriden, said in the last years of operating her store she observed how people would come in, inspect the various brands of yarns she had in stock and then walk out of the shop — only to make the purchase online, she believed.

Artisanal wool producers also are opting to sell their yarns at farmer’s markets or on the craft and wool festival circuits that pop up across New England and all over the country, Hodges said, during the summer and fall.

Although knitters can buy yarn in West Lebanon at chain retailers Michaels, Jo-Ann Fabrics or Walmart, those stores do not specialize in the premium yarns some customers demand.

With the closing of Northern Nights Yarns, that leaves only Scratch, which opened in 2016 and recently expanded with a new space on the pedestrian mall in downtown Lebanon, and Whippletree Yarn Shop in Woodstock — which dates back to at least 1966 — and HodgePodge Yarns and Fibers in Newport as the Upper Valley’s only remaining yarn stores.

“There used to be a lot more,” said Shelley Carr, Whippletree’s co-owner along with Andrea Gregory.

Although Carr said she understands the convenience of buying online if “it’s a go-to yarn that you use over and over again over the years.” But a brick-and-mortar yarn store nonetheless can provide an advantage the internet cannot, she said: the ability to experience the texture of new yarns.

Customers “can see and feel what the yarn is,” Carr said, which is important for knitters.

Northern Nights Yarns benefited from its location, drawing customers from well-heeled Norwich and Hanover, according to Country Woolen’s Hodges. “It was a very high-end shop selling top-quality yarn and made good sense where she was,” she said.

Stepping into Northern Nights Yarns was like visiting a store in another era. Hoisington’s store never had a website, not even a Facebook page. “If I had a person who was 12 and could design a website for me, fine,” Hoisington said. “I don’t need the aggravation.”

Hoisington said she even eschewed using email to communicate with yarn suppliers, preferring to call them on the phone to place orders.

“I talk to people, ask, ‘Who has the best alpaca?’ ” she said. “That’s how I find the best.”

“My focus has been to sell really good wool,” Hoisington said, reeling off brands that fill the store’s cubby holes such as Rowan from the U.K., Mirasol from Peru, Jade Sapphire from Mongolia, Kenzie from New Zealand and Swans Island from Maine.

As might be expected with the finest merino and cashmere from around the world, it doesn’t come cheap. A 100-gram, 219-yard skein — about enough to knit a cap — of cobalt blue Araucania merino yarn “spun in Bolivia” goes for $20, while a 25-gram, 82-yard red skein of Karabella cashmere yarn derived from goats in Mongolia but spun in Italy costs $25, and 100-gram, 250-yard burgundy-like skein of “certified organic merino sources” in South America sells for $32.

“If you want good cashmere, you have to pay for it,” Hoisington said.

Hoisington moved to the Upper Valley in the 1970s when her husband, Harland, was hired as an administrator at Dartmouth College — he later became director of financial aid at the college. They both previously had worked in education administration in New York.

They settled in Norwich, and soon dogs, sheep and horses joined their growing family, Hoisington said (a daughter Cindy would go on to become a veterinarian).

“We weren’t hippies, but we were definitely into the farming end of it,” Hoisington said of the growing collection of quadrupeds at their Norwich home.

“At first we had one sheep. Then you have two. Then you had a dozen,” Hoisington explained; the growing mob led to her shearing their wool and turning it into yarn.

Hoisington said she will be calling an inventory liquidator to sell of her yarn store’s remaining inventory. She has more than she might otherwise have had because, even though Hoisington knew she would be closing at the end of the year, she stocked up for the holidays.

“A lot of businesses closing would not have bought for the Christmas season, but that’s not fair” to customers, Hoisington explained. Yarn gifts are big during the holidays, and she said she wanted to avoid disappointing her loyal clientele.

The customers, in fact, will be the greatest thing Hoisington misses when she retires, she said.

“It’s very hard,” Hoisington said. “The hardest part is I’m going to miss these people. I watched their children grow and their grandchildren grow. I’m going to miss them.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.