the Comeback: Flooded store rebounds as Vt. Retailer of the Year
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | August 26,2012
Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Stanley “Pal” Borofsky points to how high the flood from Tropical Storm Irene soaked the shoe warehouse of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters — his family-owned Brattleboro business recently named Vermont Retailer of the Year.
Stanley “Pal” Borofsky, second of three generations of family retailers at Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters in Brattleboro, has spent a half-century selling Vermonters everything to ward off the hottest sun or the coldest snow.
But that didn’t prepare him for when five feet of Tropical Storm Irene floodwater swept away his stockpile of canoes and kayaks and submerged 6,500 pairs of shoes and boots.
“You don’t know when you’re looking at it,” Borofsky recalls of the rushing current, “what the damage and the next weeks and months will be.”
Many storm-soaked Brattleboro residents woke the day after Irene to see their town on seemingly every national news outlet from NBC’s “Today” show to the New York Times — drawn both by the devastation and the fact the media couldn’t drive any farther north on the state’s washed-out roads.
Borofsky, 78, missed the Weather Channel broadcasting live outside his downtown block. Much of the family’s 80-year-old business — reporters split on whether to tag it the L.L. Bean or Macy’s of Brattleboro — lacked electricity or languished in mud. Many would have run or retired, but Sam’s 50 employees dug in and dug out. A year later, the Vermont Retail Association just named the store its Retailer of the Year.
For Sam’s, Irene is only the latest page in a long and storied history. Russian immigrant Samuel Borofsky opened the former Army and Navy Store in 1932 to sell American military surplus goods during the Depression. Sam’s son Pal sold rationed cigarettes there as a schoolboy during World War II. Pal’s son Brad grew up learning sales as the counterculture crowd arrived to buy Levi’s during the Vietnam War.
But the store hadn’t experienced such a watershed moment as the one when the nearby Whetstone Brook flooded lower downtown Aug. 28, 2011. As staffers barricaded the rear entrance with two spare blankets and hauled boxes onto higher shelves, water poured through building cracks in what one employee described as “something out of an Indiana Jones movie.”
The store’s upper floors stayed open without losing a single day of business. Irene, however, wreaked havoc in the basement and warehouse. At the time, media reports estimated the damage at a half-million dollars. Borofsky won’t confirm any figure, saying only the warehouse losses alone totaled $140,000 and that seemingly simple pair of blankets under the door saved twice that dollar figure in further destruction.
Sam’s couldn’t afford flood insurance, as it required coverage of all 50,000 square feet on three levels. But the business received help from supportive financiers and suppliers, as well as customers in high places. Take Gov. Peter Shumlin, who surveyed the scene the next day.
“I got my first hunting rifle at Sam’s,” Shumlin told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Borofsky and staff took aim at something else. They pulled 13,000 waterlogged shoes out of soggy cardboard boxes, positioned them in front of fans and dehumidifiers, then polished off any remaining silt. Three weeks later, they steeply discounted all the footwear and sold most in about a month.
Contractors, meanwhile, removed mud and ripped out and replaced flooring and wallboard. Borofsky’s son called Shumlin to find a fast yet safe disposal site, knowing workers had to finish before the November and December shopping season that accounts for 40 percent to 50 percent of many merchants’ annual revenue.
In the end, the lukewarm economy and even balmier winter didn’t help sales. The store responded by reviewing its entire inventory, discounting or discontinuing slow-selling items and adding and augmenting more popular ones. A year later, Borofsky says Irene changed his store — for the better.
“You learn by everything,” he says. “This was a long endeavor, but never did I say, ‘Woe is me, I’m done.’ It’s a matter of, ‘It’s got to be done.’ The flood made us smarter and, as a result, our store stronger.”