Landmark Putney store in search of an operator
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | April 01,2013
Vyto Starinskas / Staff FILE Photo
Above, the Putney General Store was rebuilt in the summer of 2011 after a 2009 arson fire, below left. It was the landmark store’s second fire in two years. Store operator Ming Chou, below right, is leaving for health issues.
Long considered the historical and social anchor of the community, the Putney General Store has withstood two devastating fires in recent years.
Now its owner, the local historical society, is faced with another challenge — finding a new operator to run the business.
The Putney Historical Society, which purchased the store in 2008, is seeking someone to lease the store now that the current operator, Ming Chou, has decided to leave.
Chou has run the store since late 2011 when it finally reopened after the second fire in 2009. But Chou has given notice that he is giving up his lease because of health issues, said Lyssa Papazian, project manager at the Putney Historical Society.
Papazian said several parties have expressed interest in buying the business from Chou.
“I’m actually pretty optimistic that one of those may work out, but I can’t really give any details of that,” she said.
When the store was being rebuilt after the first fire, the owner of Lisai’s Market, which has stores in Chester and Bellows Falls, expressed interest in leasing the Putney store. But Papazian said Lisai’s is not among the parties that have expressed interest in taking over the business. The successive fires, the last one an arson, put the store out of business for three years. The store was rebuilt from the ground up at a cost of more than $1 million. When it finally reopened, Chou was in a position where he had to start the business from scratch, Papazian said.
“He’s built up the business from essentially nothing to something close to what it once was,” she said.
In the intervening three years, Papazian said some customers who used to frequent the store gravitated to other options, including the nearby Putney Food Co-op and Mountain Paul’s General Store.
Chou has an extensive background in the grocery business, including running a store in Sterling, Mass., for many years. When he opened the Putney store, Papazian said he opened “with an incredible inventory,” hoping to be a full-service grocery store.
The plan may have been slightly too ambitious.
She said Chou has had to adjust his inventory a bit focusing on more popular items.
Papazian said Chou has been very flexible and has not given the historical society a deadline for when he’ll give up the lease. “We’re hoping we can make a transition in the summer or by the summer,” she said.
Built in 1796, the store had anchored the downtown as a shopping and informal community meeting place.
The new two-story, post-and-beam building looks much the same from the outside as the original building but is not a historical replica, Papazian said.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont stepped forward following the first fire in 2008 and purchased an option on the property from the owner. The Trust then turned that option over to the Putney Historical Society, which purchased the property.
With the help of Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Trust was able to secure a $100,000 grant to help rebuild the store. Papazian said thanks to the community fundraising efforts the mortgage on the property is a manageable $200,000.
Despite the challenges from the recent past and now the need to find a new owner for the business, she stressed that the store is in no danger of closing.
“That’s the one thing I do want to communicate,” Papazian said. “The historical society understands how important it is to have this store open.”