Jim Kenyon: Lebanon Village Marketplace Closed for Good

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 6/19/2018 11:46:06 PM

The thick glass doors at the front entrance to Lebanon Village Marketplace were locked on Monday afternoon. A pickup truck was backed up to the doors. Plastic snow shovels leaned against the side of the building.

Inside, store owner Ritch Bill was picking through a box of sundries.

“I’m just cleaning up,” he said, after answering my knocks.

After a 13-year run, Bill announced in a Facebook post on Friday that the downtown grocery store next to the Lebanon Fire Station was “closing for good at 4 o’clock (that day), 75 percent off everything that is left. Thank you to all the friends we have made. You will be missed.”

This isn’t the first time the city has lost its only downtown supermarket. The building, which went up in 1975, was shuttered for two years after Butson’s, a neighborhood grocery store that was part of a small Twin State chain, closed in 2003.

Back then the store was considered a vital community resource. The thinking was that residents, particularly low-income seniors living in Rogers House at the other end of Colburn Park, needed a place close by to do grocery shopping. City officials and residents banded together to mount a successful campaign to bring in a new supermarket.

But Village Marketplace was no different from its predecessor in one respect. In basketball slang, Village Marketplace was a tweener — too big to survive as a convenience store, too small to compete with the supermarket chains and the Lebanon Co-op a few miles away.

“You can’t run a grocery store where customers are buying only one or two items,” Bill said. “They were treating it like a convenience store.”

Dashing in and out for a quart of milk, a 20-ounce soft drink or a roll of paper towels on the way home, customers might buy enough goods to fill a shopping bag, but seldom a shopping cart.

That’s not to say the store didn’t have its regulars.

“My husband is always telling me he’d rather walk up and get the meat there than anywhere else because it’s better quality,” Ruth Emery, who lives around the corner, toldValley News business writer John Lippman.

The problem: Pork chops, hamburger and chicken often were the only items that people brought to the checkout line. “They’d do the bulk of their shopping on 12A,” Bill said.

Over the years, Bill toyed with opening a drive-through window to sell coffee, expanding the deli to include more restaurant-style seating and adding a hardware department.

“He worked his tail off,” said Bruce Waters, a broker with Lang McLaughry Commercial in West Lebanon who was involved with bringing Village Marketplace to downtown in 2005. “No doubt he wanted to make money, but he stepped up to really help the community.”

In the end, however, the costs associated with keeping a small business afloat became too much.

“If we had a warm spell and were running the air conditioning all the time, the electric bill could be $14,000 a month,” Bill told me.

The “biggest struggle” was finding reliable help, he said. Bill was on a schedule of 12 days on, two days off, but it didn’t always work out that way. “People call in sick or don’t show up,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

Jobs at the low end of the pay scale are in plentiful supply these days. Attracting — and keeping — workers isn’t as easy as it was even five years ago. With business on the decline and workers in short supply, Bill’s payroll shrunk from 25 employees to 17.

The chances of another grocery store moving in?

Highly unlikely.

Along with the big supermarkets, Lebanon now has a “proliferation of pretty high-end convenience stores that sell grocery items,” Rob Taylor, executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, pointed out.

Where will seniors at Rogers House do their shopping?

Actually, they weren’t a big part of his business, Bill said. Which didn’t surprise Taylor. Not with Advance Transit stopping outside the housing complex, offering free service to West Lebanon five days a week.

Caro Properties, a commercial real estate company with offices in Nashua and Boston, owns the concrete block building that houses Village Marketplace.

On Monday, Taylor talked with the company, which is owned by brothers Rob and Roger Caro, about redeveloping the property into so-called mixed use — a combination of housing, office and retail space.

The company didn’t express much interest in the idea, Taylor said. (I took that to mean it doesn’t want to sink big bucks into the property, which was assessed at $1.4 million for property tax purposes last year.)

I also called Caro Properties, and was referred back to Waters, who is working with the company, as he did in the early 2000s, to fill the downtown space.

The 13,000-square-foot building is “definitely tired” and needs some improvements, Waters said. It could be “re-purposed” into offices or divided up to accommodate two or three small businesses. He mentioned a deli-style restaurant or a fitness center as possibilities.

Makes sense. What would we do with another supermarket in the Upper Valley?

Before long, Amazon will be delivering groceries to our doorsteps by drones, anyway.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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