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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

New Owners Embrace Community of Ripton Country Store

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RIPTON — The 139-year-old Ripton Country Store has new owners, but never fear — the cozy, 19th-century-era shop will remain the same communal space it has always been. The only noticeable change? A small female terrier mix named Floyd is there to greet you at the door.

Following two weeks of training by former owners Dick and Sue Collitt, Middlebury native Gary Wisell and his wife Eva Hoffman have spent the past two and a half weeks running the store on their own for the first time. But the reality of running a general store is that its owners will never be truly alone; the bell above the door rings every few minutes. Hoffman and Wisell are all smiles as they greet each customer.

“I think it’s really important to point out how special everybody up here is,” Hoffman told The Campus. “There isn’t a single soul who wouldn’t help us.”

The couple moved up to Ripton from Virginia, where Hoffman worked as a primary school teacher and Wisell as a landscaper, and though the transition has been hectic, both are happy with their decision. “Everything’s new, but that makes it kind of fun,” Hoffman said of the last two weeks.

“I think we took to it pretty quickly,” Wisell agreed. “The hours are long, though. It’s a long day — a 12-hour day.” The couple has maintained the hours the Collitts held: the store is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekend. But for Hoffman and Wisell, it’s all worth it. “People are awesome, very supportive, very patient,” Wisell said. “It couldn’t be better if we tried. … I think we made the right decision.”

Hoffman and Wisell purchased the store this past July, but they weren’t the only ones vying for position, thanks to coverage in a March New York Times op-ed by Bill McKibben. Dick and Sue Collitt, who purchased the store in 1976 and ran it ever since, decided last year that it was time for them to finally retire. They put the store, including their upstairs apartment, on the market over a year and a half ago. It was only after the op-ed by McKibben, a Ripton resident and scholar-in-residence at the college, that the store’s advertisement got any attention. In fact, over 50 offers flooded into their realtor’s inbox, Dick told The Campus in April. 

[pullquote speaker="EVA HOFFMAN " photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]I think it’s really important to point out how special everybody up here is ... There isn’t a single soul who wouldn’t help us.[/pullquote]

Wisell and Hoffman were actually too late when they first contacted the Collits that same month; the Collitts had already taken another offer. Though Wisell and Hoffman were disappointed, they had accepted that it was not yet the right time for them to make such a big move. 

“But [the idea] really put a spark into our minds and our hearts,” Hoffman said. “This was something we wanted to pursue.” The couple began a halfhearted search into other businesses around the state, but it was difficult to find a place they liked that could also house them. Even when they did find a store in East Poultney that could, it just wasn’t right.

“I was looking for something similar to this, and the East Poultney store was similar to this, but it wasn’t special, it wasn’t the Ripton store, it wasn’t the place where my uncle got his mail for 40-some-odd years, it wasn’t the place where my family had history,” Wisell said. 

Indeed, the Ripton Country Store is unique — few other shops can boast an original antique cash register or continue to function simultaneously as the town’s sole post office. The Ripton store is particularly significant for Wisell, too, because this was the area in which he grew up.

To the joyful surprise of the now new owners, the first deal the Collitts had made with another buyer fell through this past July, and Wisell and Hoffman immediately reached out to the Collitts to extend their own offer again. Though the Virginia couple was again competing against several other potential buyers, the Collitts seemed to have already decided Wisell and Hoffman were the right people for the job, even before meeting them in person.

“They really didn’t ask us a lot of questions,” Wisell said, which Hoffman believes was mainly because of Wisell’s family connection — the Collitts knew his uncle well — and the fact that he is a native Vermonter himself. It seems also to have resulted from the new couple’s desire to keep the store exactly the way it is.

“Forty-two years [the Collitts] were here,” Wisell said in an interview with The Addison Independent. “They must have done something right.”

After the Collitts chose them, things moved almost too quickly for Wisell and Hoffman. They had to quit their jobs, fix up and sell their house in Virginia, figure out the finances involved in purchasing the store and then move their entire lives up north into a two-bedroom apartment. The move has proven stressful for the couple, but Hoffman and Wisell appear visibly content as they place logs in the wood stove and eagerly ring up customers at the cash register.

“There’s a lot of joy in all of this, too,” Hoffman told The Campus. “Just meeting people, [and] the beauty of everything that surrounds us.”

McKibben’s op-ed described the Collitts and the Ripton Country Store as the “heart and soul of our community.” New owners Hoffman and Wisell have already embraced this great responsibility with open arms.