BRATTLEBORO—Twice Upon A Time, the multilevel dealer mall and vintage and consignment store on Main Street, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
And, with the passing of the baton three years ago from former owner Randi Crouse to her daughter Nicole (Nicky) Chase, the shop can continue on as a family-owned, woman-led establishment.
Crouse told The Commons, “almost all of my mentors were women,” including her mother, her first influence. “She was a strong, vivacious, independent, and sassy woman,” Crouse said, and she’s passed that spirit, support, and guidance on to Chase.
Crouse bought Twice Upon A Time in 1987 from her neighbor, Sharon Dunn. Then, it was a consignment shop selling children’s clothing, and it occupied a storefront of about 200 square feet at 138 Elliot Street.
“I started in Dot MacDonald’s building,” Crouse said, and noted that at that time, few women owned downtown shops.
As a new business owner and mother of three young children, she was thankful for the support MacDonald gave her. “Dottie loved my kids,” Crouse said, and added, “she helped me so much.”
When asked why she entered the consignment business, Crouse said it fit in with her ethics: recycling and reuse, buying clothing on a budget, and cooperative selling.
In a consignment arrangement, the owner of the merchandise enters into an agreement with the shop’s proprietor: The shop will display and sell the item, handle the money, and interact with the customers, and both parties will split the proceeds when the item is sold.
The shop owner doesn’t have to assume the entire risk — and none of the up-front capital — to stock their store with goods. And the vendor has a venue to sell their goods without having to open their own shop.
Since opening the store, Crouse put the business through a number of changes. Chase said this comes from a crucial aspect of her mother’s personality.
“Randi is a force of nature. We used to say, ’Mom, you’re ’Tazzing,’” — as in “Taz,” the Tasmanian Devil character, created by Robert McKimson for the Warner Bros. cartoons, who spends most of his time spinning in a vortex of chaos.
“She’d spin around the store, saying, ’I want to move this. I want to move that.’ She’s like a whirlwind,” Chase said.
Moving and expanding
Two years after buying Twice Upon A Time, Crouse added adult consignment clothing to the shop’s offerings. Two years after that, she moved the business from Elliot Street to lower Main Street, in the Barrows block.
A year later, Crouse moved, yet again, to the shop’s current location at 63 Main St.
“Betsy Gentile found that space for me. She was my ad rep at WKVT. I walked in and just fell in love,” Crouse said.
At that point, only the southern half of the storefront was available — the northern half was still occupied by Stowe Electric.
When Ozzy Stowe retired and closed his shop, Crouse negotiated with the building’s manager, Pamela Cersosimo, to take over Stowe’s half and return the bifurcated storefront to its original, open space by knocking down the dividing wall and removing the dropped ceiling.
What inspired Crouse’s desire to renovate was a discovery she made when addressing a plumbing leak. As she climbed a high ladder that sent her above the dropped ceiling, she saw the capitals — the decorative tops of the two columns — and decided to uncover and restore their beauty.
Crouse wanted to know more about their origin, so she visited the Brooks Memorial Library and the Brattleboro Historical Society. She located images from the early-1900s, when the building housed the department store, E.J. Fenton & Son.
“I totally felt like a spy. I went through hours and hours of microfiche,” Crouse said. Her efforts paid off. With photos of the department store’s interior, it was easy to convince Cersosimo to let her recreate the look of E.J. Fenton & Son, including the ornate capitals.
“I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Pamela. She helped me immensely,” Crouse said.
A lesson Crouse learned early on was to incorporate what she called “buddy businesses” into her shop. Shortly after moving into the larger space at 63 Main Street, she partnered with family members to split the cost of the space, and she built 10 dealer booths — rented out monthly — which sold out so quickly she soon added 20 more.
“I have hundreds of micro-businesses here,” said Chase. “When you buy from us, you’re buying from the whole community.”
Crouse attributes this, in part, to Twice Upon A Time’s longevity. When she moved and expanded her business, “people told me, ’You’re never going to make it.’ But I did make it,” she said.
Handing down a business
Chase began managing the store around 2002, became a 50/50 partner in 2007, and officially took over the shop three years ago, but she has been a part of Twice Upon A Time since she was a child.
Referring to her daughter, Crouse said, “She was my right-hand man from the beginning. I knew I could trust her with the shop.”
Carrying on the tradition, Chase has raised her children, and her siblings’ children, in Twice Upon A Time. “I’ve brought my kids here since they were eight weeks old. I nursed them here,” she said.
The two women shared a story about Chase’s daughter, Abigail, now 14, who began walking before her first birthday. In the labyrinthine shop, full of furniture displays and clothing racks, Abigail would play hide-and-seek — but without telling Mom and Grandma first.
“We thought someone kidnapped her!” Crouse said. “Once I found her hiding in a cedar chest,” Chase noted.
Crouse came up with a solution: “Every day I would bring her to Baker’s,” the stationery store formerly located on Main Street, “and buy her whatever color helium balloon she wanted. We’d tie it to her jeans so we could always find her.”
“That’s what I always wanted: a family store,” said Crouse, who noted many of the customers and dealers were part of her kids’ and grand-kids’ childhoods. A visitor noticed that when Crouse was in the shop, talking to The Commons, the conversation paused every few minutes for her to greet another old friend.
“All of our dealers are family,” said Chase. “They come in twice, three times a week.”
“You never know what [merchandise is] going to come in,” said Crouse. “It’s like Christmas every day!”
“I love Brattleboro,” Crouse said. “It’s been very, very welcoming and supportive. The people here are wonderful. I’m very blessed. I couldn’t have made it for 30 years without them.”
So, why did she leave?
“It’s been 30 years. I worked seven days a week for one year doing estate sales, and I had the store,” and an auction house, said Crouse, who added, “I burned myself out. I needed time to heal.”
“Nicky was as much of the store’s blood as I was. It was a natural change [for her to assume full ownership]. She wanted to do it, and I didn’t want her to if she didn’t want to,” said Crouse. “It was a smooth transition.”
Crouse said her daughter “has earned it,” and added, “she’s worked hard for every piece of it.”
Does Chase have any changes planned for the store?
“I’m just trying to evolve,” she said, and mentioned bringing in more vendors who create “upcycled” goods. “There’s a lot more of that out there, and I want it here. You can turn trash into treasure,” she said.
“That’s my motto,” said Chase. “Funky, chic, and unique.”