A vacant space in the heart of West Brattleboro

For years, a convenience store served a community in need. Last month, it closed, with no explanation from its corporate ownership and a track record of uncooperative management.

WEST BRATTLEBORO — By the time the closing of the 7-Eleven on Western Avenue was reported in the Brattleboro Reformer on Sept. 24, most residents had known it would be happening a couple of weeks before.

Still, the change was abrupt.

In the days after the store closed, a chain-link fence surrounded the lot. The store windows were boarded with plywood slabs. Excavation equipment worked daily, and local residents woke each morning to the sound of jackhammers and heavy machinery.

The gas tanks have been removed now and the ground has been leveled again. The fence has been removed, and after West Brattleboro Pizza closes each night, the only light in the small strip mall comes from an unsupervised 24/7 laundromat, leaving a vacant space in the heart of West Brattleboro.

The closing of the 7-Eleven on Western Avenue is in some ways a small story - businesses close and open regularly in Brattleboro. But the impact on the local community is considerable.

“I now have to think about bread, milk, and eggs, things I could send the kids down to get,” said Shawn Severance, a local resident. “It's seems trivial, but it's a change.”

Local residents have wondered about the impact on people who live in places like Hayes Court and the Village Green who do not have cars and depended on being able to walk to the local convenience store for essential items.

“Where am I supposed to go to get smokes and other stuff when I visit Mom and Dad?” asked Jenny May, a local resident. “It was so easy because I can't drive.”

“What a huge impact on families and individuals,” said Lucia Hawkins. “This is a major game change that impacts so many aspects of the community, including increased driving and traffic.”

* * *

I live close by the 7-Eleven. I often shopped there for incidentals, and I bought my gas there, so I got to know many of the people who worked there over the years - there was always a lot of turnover. It was the only place in West Brattleboro I could walk to without taking a hike.

The inconvenience is the main thing. My wife and I had just got home and realized we were out of whipped cream to top the apple pie she had made earlier. If the store were still open, it would have been an easy stroll across the street under a clear night sky. Now one of us would have to hop in the car and drive, and it just wasn't worth the time and the effort.

And even though it was a chain store, it contributed to a sense of community in this part of town. I don't mean to exaggerate - it was a chain operation, after all, not a country store. Still, it was a place where the people behind the counter knew you, and you could always have a friendly chat with one of the shopkeepers or someone else in the store, just talking about how the weather was or where the fishing might be good.

One night, I was working late on a story and had reached a dead end, then realized I was out of coffee for the morning.

I walked over and grabbed some coffee from the shelves. One of the shopkeepers I knew best was behind the counter, chatting to another friend, a break dancer who lived in the area.

My head now clear from a late-night community interaction, I was able to tackle the work.

Sometimes it can seem that the world we live in provides fewer opportunities for human connection than we need, and in that sense, the closing of the store leaves an emotional void.

When it became obvious that the store was liquidating its stock, I asked some of the workers there what was going on. None of them knew, beyond the fact that the store's fate was a corporate decision and that they could sense enough to already start looking for new jobs.

I decided to do some research and reporting, and I quickly learned that the franchise was under corporate ownership, not a locally-owned franchise. Then I called the number for corporate headquarters in Austin, Texas.

I called three times over a period of two weeks. Each time, I was directed by a pleasant young operator to contact headquarters through the company's media center email address. I sent three emails, each more detailed and explicit than the last.

I received no response.

* * *

This is both a local story and a national story. Nationally, 7-Eleven is under heavy fire for proposed changes in its franchising framework from the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees (NCASEF), a group that comprises about 5,000 franchise owners.

The corporation is held by a Japanese holding company called Seven & I, according to a July 30 article in The New York Times, which quoted a statement from Seven & I that gross profit margins had fallen 0.5 percent in the last fiscal year in U.S. and other overseas stores.

The corporation is privately held in the United States, so questions of profit and loss are not required to be disclosed.

Some of the sticking points in the corporation's new proposed franchise agreement include a hike in the initial franchise fee to $50,000, and an $8,000 increase in the franchise fees paid by any longer-time franchise owner who is renewing an agreement. The requirement that franchise stories be open on Christmas has also been a source of concern.

A document put together for the coalition by one of its lawyers listed 45 changes between the current and the proposed agreements, most of which are disadvantageous for franchise owners. In a survey conducted by NCASEF, only 5 percent of franchisees agreed that the new franchise agreement would make their store more profitable.

NCASEF is not a union. Its members are small-business owners who have invested in stores controlled by a corporation. Their choice is either to sign the agreement or get out of business.

* * *

At the local level, there is no question that closing the 7-Eleven and boarding it up has created a sense of desolation in an area of town that has sometimes struggled to achieve a sense of community. It is also a place with a lot of housing for less advantaged people, many of whom do not have cars.

The 7-Eleven space - still leased and controlled by the corporation - is in the center of a small mall at the most significant intersection on this part of Western Avenue: Greenleaf Street, a main route to Guilford. The store was also the closest gas station to Exit 2 on I-91.

Old-timers in the area remember the space as Lou's Amoco, a gas station and repair shop. It ultimately became a 7-Eleven through a succession of corporate buyouts of regional convenience store chains: Grampy's, which sold to Christy's, which sold to 7-Eleven.

In recent years, heroin and other drugs were readily available in a nearby house, and that would also draw a lot of people to the 7-Eleven and the area around it. I sometimes saw drug deals made in the parking lot along the side of it that is unlit by streetlamps.

Apart from a few small daytime businesses, the only managed enterprise in the mall now is West Brattleboro Pizza, whose owner said that his business had not been affected too much yet, but that time would tell.

“It's true, the night-time has slowed,” said Cengiz Karagoz, who bought the pizzeria three years ago after working at Brattleboro Village Pizza at Exit 3 for 13 years.

Karagoz, who came the United States from Turkey almost two decades ago, said that without the gas tanks he was seeing very little tourist traffic in the late afternoons and evenings.

On a Sunday afternoon at the height of the foliage season, the parking lot was almost empty except for some people doing their Sunday laundry at an unattended 24-hour laundromat next to the boarded space that had been the 7-Eleven.

When the crack house was still open, sometimes people would take refuge there, but it is generally quiet now. When the pizzeria shuts down at 9 or 9:30 p.m. - earlier than it used to - the space is essentially abandoned.

* * *

Current franchise owners of 7-Elevens across the United States are deeply troubled by the new agreement that they have been asked to sign for 2019 and subsequent years. The new rules require them to use only suppliers approved by 7-Eleven corporate headquarters, to make additional capital investments, and change a variety of management practices.

For the last franchise owner of the West Brattleboro store, even the old rules were burdensome.

According to the NACSEF survey, 84 percent of franchise owners disagreed that 7-Eleven cares about the well-being of its franchises.

Louis Vitale would agree. When 7-Eleven came in, it was a franchise operation, and he was the store's last franchise owner. He took over its operation in 2009 and left it in November 2012.

“It was in rough shape when we got there, and the sales were quite low,” Vitale said. “Within the first year, we turned the place around, brought back the local crowd, and the sales were over $1 million the first year.”

“A lot of people think that makes you instantly rich,” said Vitale, “but in reality, it translated into about $50,000 income for me, since you have to split the profits with 7-Eleven, and you are responsible for a majority of maintenance and 100 percent of payroll, which was, of course, my biggest expense.”

Vitale explained that, as an incentive from 7-Eleven called the “store development plan,” he split profits on a 60-40 percentage basis for the first two years, and then that shifted to a 50-50 percentage split.

“For the first couple years we did OK,” he said. “Once the 50-50 split began, things started to go downhill.”

Vitale explained that his marginal profit on sales of gasoline amounted to about $400 a month, since as a franchise owner his profit margin was 1.5 cents per gallon.

He also said that finding honest and reliable staff was a challenge, and more than once he had to let go of employees who had stolen from the store.

Most of the profit from these convenience stores comes from items like coffee that customers buy inside. Sales of these items provided Vitale with his income, but between 7-Eleven taking a larger cut of the profits and a plateau in what he could earn from sales based on customer traffic, things became difficult.

“Once the sales started to stagnate, 7-Eleven Corporation started getting on my back to keep increasing sales,” he said. “This is where the problem began. Our regular fanbase was pretty much maxed out.”

Vitale said that traffic for convenience stores is mainly generated by local customers, but their success depends on passersby, such as the tourist traffic that would come to his store as the last gas stop before Interstate 91. He said that his efforts to increase these sales were not supported by the corporation.

“One of my biggest concerns was that there was no sign outside to let people know that we were there,” he said. “Most travelers don't know about us, so they continued on or stopped in a more visible location.”

Vitale suggested to the corporate office that a lighted sign over the gas pumps would improve sales. Although he reports that the 7-Eleven field consultant said that the town would not allow it, Vitale's wife put together the paperwork, and the sign was approved by the Brattleboro Selectboard.

Vitale offered to split the cost, but characterized company representatives as unresponsive. He described reaching a point where a regional market manager for the company agreed to meet with him to discuss putting up a sign.

“Here's the funny part,” Vitale said. “I was waiting for him to arrive and I received a call from his cell phone saying that he couldn't find the place. He was already heading up Route 9 to Wilmington.”

“I told him to turn around, and he actually drove by the place a second time, and I ended up having to stand outside and wave him down,” Vitale said. “I said, 'You just made the most eloquent case for what I am about to pitch to you. You are an employee of corporate 7-Eleven, looking for a 7-Eleven, and you couldn't find us.'”

The corporation did agree that a sign was needed, and that it would take a year to do it.

In the meantime, Vitale decided to give up the franchise. He was working 60-to-100-hour weeks, by his account, and not making enough to make ends meet.

“I was bleeding money every month,” Vitale said, “so one day when the field consultant showed up, I handed him the keys and said, 'Get me out of here.'”

Asked what he would say to 7-Eleven's headquarters, Vitale said, “I told you so!”

* * *

Because the 7-Eleven corporate headquarters has not responded to requests for information, it is impossible to know why they shut the store down. It certainly was a business decision.

It seems likely that the profit margins were too small to justify the store's continued existence as part of the corporation's chain, at least under their own management. It also seems probable that the store's gas tanks represented a potential liability - not something they wanted to leave behind, given that they cleaned out the tanks when they boarded the place.

What comes next, and whether the storefront will re-open, is not clear.

Whimsical suggestions from local residents on the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group have ranged from a roller rink to a bodega. One person suggested merging the storefront with the laundromat to create a space where singles can hang out while they do their laundry.

The greatest need for local residents who don't drive, or don't want to drive, is a place where they can purchase a few items when they need them. Convenience stores are called that for a reason. For some people, it is not simply a matter of convenience.

But the lease belongs to 7-Eleven, and the company is actively looking for a new franchise owner with a variety of incentives, including deals like the one that Vitale made.

“Starting your own franchise is easier than you think,” says their advertisement. “7-Eleven is the world's #1 convenience store, and a top-five franchisor. As a 7-Eleven Franchisee, you'll be partnering with a brand that's known and loved around the world. Hurry and apply now - this store will franchise fast!”

According to the NCAFES survey, 73 percent of respondents indicate that they would not take on a 7-Eleven franchise if they had to do it again.

* * *

With the gas tanks gone, it is hard to see how any new store would attract the kind of traffic that enables a convenience store to survive. It seems possible that the space in the anchor area of West Brattleboro will be empty for a long time.

The challenge of how a small town like Brattleboro adapts to the closing of businesses is not new to the town.

Businesses often open and close in Brattleboro, and empty storefronts on Main Street are not uncommon, though they often fill quickly.

But other spaces, such as the big-box building on Putney Road that was once an Ames Department Store before becoming a Home Depot, have remained empty for years.

It seems possible that the 7-Eleven space will be empty for a long time. And it seems possible, even probable, that nobody in our little neighborhood will know what, if anything, could point to a future use that could meet the community's needs.

In the case of Home Depot, which closed its store in the Hannaford shopping plaza on Putney Road 10 years ago, the website of the development company in New York state still actively lists Home Depot as an anchor tenant. raising the possibility that all concerned found it more advantageous to continue leasing an abandoned space than to risk having a competitor move in.

The 7-Eleven Corporation is based in Austin, Texas, and owned in turn by Seven & I, based in Japan. The property on which the store was located is owned by an LLC in California.

In my reporting, I also tried calling and emailing Joe DePinto, the company's CEO, who played a major role in the development of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. According to online sources, DePinto's net worth is $40 million and he makes slightly more than a $1 million annual salary, a far cry from the West Brattleboro customers who will most miss this store.

Meanwhile, it turns out on its website, the company is actively seeking someone to purchase the franchise. “Franchise this 7-Eleven,” the PDF flyer blares. “It's easier than you think, and it just might be the smartest business decision you ever make.”

There, without the gas tanks? And what about the sign? And with a contentious franchise agreement that could be less advantageous than the one that compelled a previous owner to hand over the keys?

A last-ditch text message from this newspaper's editor to the contact for would-be franchisees was delivered but went unanswered.

Neither the company nor the property owner legally owes anybody an explanation. But the neighboring businesses and former customers of the closed store - our West Brattleboro community - are left with the impact.

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