Store closures on Main Street exemplify challenging job market

by Savannah Eller | 1/29/19 2:45am

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by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth

Those who appreciate downtown Hanover’s charm might be distressed this winter by the recent closures of several long-time small business staples. The Dartmouth Bookstore, Canoe Club restaurant, and the clothing retailers Folk and Rambler’s Way have all permanently shut their doors in the past few months, falling victim to a trend that has made some Hanover merchants uneasy about the future. 

“It’s a gaping hole,” said Hanover town manager Julia Griffin of the vacancies, “and that’s not good.”

Plans for the vacancies are pending, according to Griffin. The bookstore will be divided into smaller rental spaces on the first floor and basement, while the second floor has already been leased by the College as an office for Tuck School of Business employees displaced by the Irving Institute expansion project.

Landlord for the space Jay Campion said the bookstore closed at the end of its 10-year lease. He predicted that the vacancy would most likely be filled by this summer after he completes needed repairs and updates in the building.

The space formerly occupied by the Canoe Club is currently open to rent, but Griffin said it may not be in use again until this summer due to an expansion project to add square footage to the back of the building. Rambler’s Way was recently replaced by Vermont-based company Farmhouse Pottery.

Hanover Chamber of Commerce president Tracy Hutchins said she believes the recent changeover does not signal an economic downturn in Hanover. 

“You’ll see a lot of turnover all at once, and then things will be quiet for a while,” she said. 

While each of the recent closures have individual causes not linked to economic trends in the town, the difficulty of doing business in Hanover has increased in the past decade, according to Griffin’s estimation.

Griffin noted that Hanover rents have become prohibitively high for some stores with more specialized goods.

“Some of the smaller — what I would define as more niche and creative businesses — just can’t possibly rent the spaces,” Griffin said. 

Lisa Newcity, manager at Main Street Kitchens, has seen this trend produce what she sees as exorbitant rent and lease prices more appropriate for Boston and New York than a small town with limited consumer traffic. 

“They’re making it impossible for small business owners to hold their spaces in the town,” she said. 

Campion, however, said the higher rates reflect Hanover’s draw as an academic and cultural hub in the Upper Valley. 

“I think the rents are higher in Hanover, and they should be higher in Hanover,” he said.

Parking in Hanover has also become a point of contention for many merchants on or near main street. With only one parking garage and limited spaces elsewhere, employees must search for a parking spot each morning unless the employer has rented spaces for their use, according to Campbell. She said that many low-wage workers in Hanover cannot afford the extra expense each morning, emphasizing that “no service worker in this town ... should pay for parking.”

Getting and keeping employees is a struggle for Sonya Campbell, co-owner of the hardware store Hanover True Value. Campbell, who says commute time, parking and the state’s overall low unemployment rate are factors that make service jobs hard to fill. Hutchins agreed, saying the challenging job market does more to stifle small business growth in Hanover than any other influence. 

She said that finding employees has become “more of a limiting factor for doing well than anything else at this point” for local businesses.

Many downtown stores are also facing decreased revenue due to online shopping, according to Griffin. She added that college students especially have chosen to move away from buying local, instead ordering online and having goods delivered on campus. The convenience and lower prices of online shopping are major motivators, Griffin said.

“Many of the students when they shop in a downtown store will see an item, take a picture, find that item online and ask the retailer to sell it to them at the price that’s available online, which is often lower,” she said. 

Campbell, whose store also serves as a UPS ship and pack location said the prominence of online shopping was a challenge with which the town would have to reconcile.

“I think that’s going to be a big shift in consumer behavior that Hanover has not yet caught onto yet,” she said.

She said the hardware store’s shipping center sees more return packages from online retailers than they see packages going out with locally-bought goods.

Hanover senior planner Vicki Smith acknowledged that the empty spaces did not inspire confidence for retail customers in Hanover. 

“What’s your impression of the downtown when you have empty spaces?” she said. 

Hanover businesses are working collectively to combat some of these fears, however. According to Hutchins, the Chamber of Commerce takes an active role in promoting business in downtown by providing information to prospective businesses and hosting events meant to boost sales during slower times of the year. 

Restaurant Week, in which local restaurants collaborate to offer prefixed menus, and the shopping event Celebrate the Season both happen during the drought most Hanover retailers experience over the College’s winter break. Hutchins said the events are any effort to mitigate the break’s effect on local business. 

John Haas, co-owner of Lemon Tree Gifts, said his fear was that Hanover might become less a town for commerce and more a corporate center. He said he will be watching how the empty spaces are filled in the coming year. 

“We’re hoping those are going to be filled with businesses and not just office spaces,” Haas said.

Despite the changing landscape of commerce in downtown, merchants like Newcity remain hopeful. 

“I’m staying positive,” she said. “I think things are going to change, and people are going to start to want to come in stores and shop and look at things.”  

Correction appended (Jan. 29, 2019): This article originally referred to The Dartmouth Bookstore as "The Hanover Bookstore."