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Clothing shop forced to close

  • Jess Abston, owner of vintage clothing store Who is Sylvia?, wipes away a tear after taking down her sign with help from Kristian Preylowski, co-owner of the Yankee Bookshop, in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. “This was not just my career, this was my home,” said Abston, who bought the business in 2011 and lived in an apartment on the second floor of the building. “It’s been the center of my world for a decade.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Kristian Preylowski, of Bridgewater Corners, helps Jess Abston remove the sign from her vintage clothing shop Who is Sylvia? in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. Abston was forced to close the store when the building was purchased by another local business Farmhouse Pottery, but is continuing to sell stock through Instagram and plans to build a retail website. “It’s not the same as having those daily interactions with customers,” said Abston. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After being forced to close because of the sale of her building, Jess Abston, owner of the vintage clothing store Who Is Sylvia?, replaces characters that blew down from a sign on her store window, thanking her customers on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. Abston is the current owner of the business which has been at its Central Street location for 42 years and passed down from owner to employee. “It sucks to be forced out by a community that you grew to love,” said Abston. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/5/2022 9:31:13 PM
Modified: 12/5/2022 9:31:16 PM

WOODSTOCK — A longtime Upper Valley retail store has closed, compelled to move to online-only sales. But this evolution isn’t due to the changing of customer habits or proliferation of online shopping that has felled so many brick-and-mortar retailers in recent years, it’s a much more traditional threat to businesses: the loss of its lease.

For 42 years from its 26 Central St., location in downtown Woodstock, Who is Sylvia? sold vintage clothing to locals, tourists, collectors, museums, theater troupes and even Hollywood stars such as Scarlett Johansson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Drew Barrymore.

But on Nov. 10, owner Jess Abston closed the shop’s brick-and-mortar presence after being unable to negotiate a new lease with the building’s new owner, Farmhouse Pottery founder James Zilian.

Abston, 41, is the store’s fourth owner and the latest in a succession of one-time store employees who eventually bought the store from its previous owner. Her interest in vintage clothing began in college with a fascination with historical literature and a resulting appreciation for period costumes and dress.

“If I had any choice in the matter, I would still be doing what I love there,” said Abston, whose first day as store owner was 11 years to the day it closed. “Who is Sylvia? was a staple in the downtown Woodstock community for so long that I regularly spoke to patrons who shared memories of purchasing their vintage prom, wedding dress or tuxedo (…) often while bringing their children or grandchildren in to shop for similar milestone occasions.”

According to Woodstock village property records, Zilian purchased 26 Central in May 2021 for $390,000 from H2JP LLC, a real estate rental and leasing company that at the time of the sale was managed by Woodstock-based real estate broker John Wetmore.

Zilian did not respond to multiple electronic and in-person requests for comment on this story. It’s unclear whether a Farmhouse Pottery store is planned for the location.

Founded by Zilian in 2012, Farmhouse Pottery is the Woodstock-based pottery and homeware maker that bills itself as America’s largest studio pottery workshop.

Besides its flagship location on Route 4 on Woodstock’s western end, it also has a retail location in downtown Hanover.

Zilian’s purchase of 26 Central will also likely impact a second long-term business, Primrose Garden, an interior and exterior decor retailer that has occupied the other half of the building since 1988. During a recent visit to the Primrose Garden during business hours the doors were locked and the lights mostly off. Owner Anne Nestler, reached via email, declined to discuss the status of her business with the Valley News.

“I just find it extremely unfortunate and it makes my heart hurt,” Abston said about closing her retail location. “And it’s just a hard feeling to know that we survived so many things. We survived Irene, we survived really intense bridge construction that went on for months. We survived a global pandemic, and now to be taken out like this.”

For Abston — who also lived above her shop and has since moved into a home in Bethel — the episode eerily echoes a painful memory from her childhood. She grew up in the Northeast Kingdom town of Orleans, Vt. where she lived above the pharmacy owned and operated by her mother.

“I would come home from school and I would sit on these gorgeous art deco chrome spinning stools and spoil my appetite on ice cream sodas and hot fudge sundaes,” Abston said. “I was surrounded by gorgeous antiques and stylized fixtures, and it just fascinated me even at a young age.”

Those surroundings, which Abston said instilled in her a love of all things bold and stylish that ultimately inspired her retail career, disappeared when the building was sold and its new owners tore down the building, and Abston’s home along with it.

“I’m not even joking, they literally built a parking lot, like the song,” said Abston, referring to the famous Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi.

Abston has begun selling her merchandise on Instagram using the handle @whoissylviavintage and hopes to eventually find another retail location. In the meantime, she worries that not having a physical location will negatively impact her ability to source the quality vintage clothing that Who is Sylvia? has become known for.

“The majority of our stock, I don’t have to go out into the world and source, it comes to us (via the storefront),” Abston said. “So that is something that concerns me with going online. I’m not going to have that base of operations that people know to come to.”

While she’d prefer to remain in Woodstock, she has begun looking at other communities in the Upper Valley and beyond because of her sense that rents are becoming out of reach to her in Woodstock. She declined to say what she was paying in rent.

“I would consider branching out (of Woodstock), especially since Woodstock is just becoming really unaffordable and I don’t know if I can afford to stay here.”

Those rental prices are a reflection of what longtime Woodstock retailer Jeffrey Kahn, who also is vice chairman of the Village of Woodstock Board of Trustees, said is a robust retail scene in Woodstock.

“I think it looks strong, stronger than a few years ago in fact,” Kahn, who has owned the gift shop Unicorn since it opened 45 years ago, said. “There are very few open spaces left in Woodstock. Most of the other shops that I’m aware of are flourishing.”

Woodstock Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Finlayson shares Kahn’s rosy view of downtown Woodstock.

“Things are amazing, quite honestly in Woodstock,” she said. “It has been an absolutely amazing summer and fall. I am feeling really positive about downtown Woodstock and I’m looking forward to a couple new stores opening really soon.”

And while both Finlayson and Kahn expressed empathy for Who is Sylvia? and Primrose Garden, they stressed that whatever business or businesses do end up in the space will be well received as long as it fits in with the surrounding community.

“I think it is what the market will bear,” said Finlayson, who pointed to the recent launches of cocktail bar Au Comptoir and bakery Splendid Bakes as evidence that small-scale businesses can still start and thrive in Woodstock. “I’m sorry about their loss of lease (…) but I hope for the best for whatever that wonderful building is going to be used for.”

While Woodstock will continue to be a shopping and tourist magnet without Who is Sylvia?, Abston hopes that it can still be a place for businesses like hers.

“As a Vermonter and person who grew up in a family business and tried to make a go of it for as long as I could in my home state, I strongly believe that viability, visibility and accessibility of young women- and queer-owned businesses like Who is Sylvia? in downtown Woodstock are absolutely vital to the health and character of our community.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.


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