BRATTLEBORO — Sam's Outdoor Outfitters has long advertised itself as "The Biggest Little Store in the World." But such hype will likely morph into history when the nearly century-old family-owned business leaves its 30,000-square-foot Main Street location at the end of its lease next spring.
"With a lot of thought, and with huge regret, we have decided that we must close the Brattleboro store," third-generation head Brad Borofsky recently wrote in a letter to employees.
Two satellite locations - one in Swanzey, New Hampshire and the other in Hadley, Massachusetts - will remain open.
Borofsky's grandfather, Sam, emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century and began selling U.S. Army and Navy surplus goods in 1932. Eighty years later, the late founder's son and grandson had expanded the business into brand-name clothing, footwear and sports gear, earning the 2012 Vermont Retailer of the Year award from the Vermont Retail Association.
"Sam's is that rarest of all retail species, a true 'destination store' in the tradition of L.L.` Bean," store publicity said upon the win a decade ago. "Sam's also gives back to its community in many ways, providing financial and volunteer support for numerous civic, religious and social institutions."
But doing so has proved increasingly difficult.
In 2016, the family sold its property on the corner of Main and Flat streets - not only its storefronts, but also 48 upper-floor apartments - to New York's Time Equities Inc. real estate firm. Paying off debt with the $2.48 million sale price, Sam's went on to sign a long-term lease in the building.
"We have no plans of leaving anytime soon," Brad Borofsky told reporters at the time. "We'll be here longer if the sales environment can stay healthy enough to sustain us."
But with its lease set to expire next spring, Sam's is facing a chillier business climate.
In an interview, Borofsky said the Brattleboro store was challenged particularly by local and state taxes that shoppers can avoid by driving less than a mile across the Connecticut River to New Hampshire.
"The sales tax has been eroding the whole retail industry on this side of the river for years," he said. "I don't think stores that sell hard goods will ever be reestablished here in a big way unless somebody does something about it."
In his letter, Borofsky wrote that "the Brattleboro store's performance has been decreasing slowly but surely for many years."
"We're planning on starting the store closing sale very soon," he wrote, "and we're hoping to liquidate as much merchandise as possible by early spring."
No one has yet to discuss future plans for the property, local government and business leaders said.
Sam's had tried to sell its Brattleboro store and the satellite locations in Hadley and Swanzey on the internet. A BizBuySell.com listing reports a nearly $5.5 million asking price for the three properties, with combined 2022 retail sales of more than $13 million.
Borofsky's letter noted lagging sales in Brattleboro have been "our biggest problem" in sparking buyer interest, as the out-of-state locations "are doing just fine."
'Change is inevitable, right?'
News of the coming closure comes the same year the nearby Hotel Pharmacy shuttered after 83 years and the former Vermont National-turned-Chittenden, People's United to M&T Bank withdrew from a neighboring corner after 150 years.
"Change is inevitable, right?" Kate Trzaskos, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, said upon the bank closure this month. "How we approach that and see it as an opportunity is what makes a difference."
Sam's own history dates back to the Great Depression, when founder Sam Borofsky moved from peddling everything from coal and ice to meat and produce to focus on military surplus goods.
Sam's son, Pal, sold rationed cigarettes at the store as a schoolboy during World War II, while Pal's son, Brad, grew up learning sales as the counterculture arrived to buy Levi's during the Vietnam War.
The store's watershed moment came when Tropical Storm Irene flooded its lower levels in 2011. Staffers barricaded the rear entrance as 5 feet of water from the nearby Whetstone Brook poured through cracks in what one employee described as "something out of an Indiana Jones movie," sweeping away a stockpile of canoes and kayaks and submerging 6,500 pairs of shoes and boots.
"I got my first hunting rifle at Sam's," then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, touring the damage a dozen years ago, told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Reached over the weekend, Shumlin said he still had the rifle, which his father gave him for a childhood birthday.
"For Brattleboro, losing Sam's is like New York losing Macy's," Shumlin said. "Something always replaces everything. That's the beauty of life. But I won't be able to walk past whatever is there without feeling a huge sense of loss. It's just devastating."
This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.