These photos show Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters (formerly Sam’s Army and Navy) after the final closing of the iconic store in downtown Brattleboro, May 19, 2024.
Bob Cornellier/Special to The Commons
These photos show Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters (formerly Sam’s Army and Navy) after the final closing of the iconic store in downtown Brattleboro, May 19, 2024.

Don’t take our loyalty for granted

I wanted to make Sam’s my store when I moved to the area 13 years ago. It wasn’t interested in making even a minimal effort to earn my patronage.

Cara Cheyette lives in Halifax, where, "as much at home as I felt in Cambridge, I've never felt more gratefully rooted than I do here, now," she says.

HALIFAX-I fled a suburb of Boston in 1979, midway through senior year, and headed directly to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was home. I lived or worked near the Square for the next 30 years, and I raised my daughter there, too.

Even well into the 1990s, the Square was a hub of independent-and-funky or independent-and-useful stores. Clothes, books (in every form and every language), hardware, stationery, music, sports equipment, bike repair, housewares, electronics, tailors, cobblers. With the exception of groceries, the Square had it all.

One of the stalwart independent stores was Brine's, a family-owned sporting goods store. Brine's seemed the obvious choice for what my kid or we needed. It was local, it was easy, it was an institution.

But shopping there was unpleasant.

I wasn't personally known by the employees, so getting any help was difficult. When I did get help, it wasn't friendly. The last time I set foot in the store, I found myself standing at the register with a handful of items ready to check out. I might as well have been a ghost.

I decided then and there I would never again give my hard-earned cash or my loyalty to a business that didn't make even the most minimal effort to earn it.

I dropped everything on the counter, walked out and up the street to City Sports.

City Sports was a newish store - Massachusetts-based, yes, but a big corporate chain. Nonetheless, the young staff greeted me with enthusiasm and ease, there to help at a moment's notice but unobtrusive, knowledgeable, and friendly.

I was a loyal customer from that day forward, and no matter when or which of their Cambridge stores I went to, I had the same experience. I made a point of communicating to the managers how much I appreciated what I was sure was a top-down approach to hiring and to retail philosophy in general.

* * *

I wanted to make Sam's my store when I moved to the area 13 years ago. My experience there, upstairs in particular, was just like my experience at Brine's. Shopping there was unpleasant.

The few times I needed to return something - something unworn, with the labels, with the receipt, within a few days of a purchase - I was greeted with reluctance or the third degree.

More than once, I tried to take advantage of advertised savings only to discover that the offerings had unpublished conditions attached. More often than not, I found it difficult to find anyone to provide any assistance, or I'd have to interrupt a conversation to get that help - and I'd pay the price for that in the salesperson's visible irritation. Alternatively, I'd be watched like a wannabe thief.

At some point, I remembered Brine's. And then I made another decision: If Sam's wasn't interested in making even a minimal effort to earn my patronage, then I wasn't interested in giving it.

* * *

I've read that Sam's is closing the Brattleboro store because its management believes the sales tax is killing sales, and I'm sure that there are people who would rather drive to New Hampshire than buy in Vermont.

But the time and gas money necessary to do so makes no sense to me, while shopping online - the real dangerous alternative - still results in the payment of sales tax, even if it doesn't include Brattleboro's 1% local-option tax. I also can't help wonder whether complaints about sales tax aren't more likely evidence of anti-tax political views than evidence that Vermont or Brattleboro's tax policy is demonstrably anti-business.

Most people I know appreciate that shopping local isn't just an idea. It's the way to build and maintain community. It's the way to pump dollars into the local economy. It's the way to create livable towns and cities that are vibrant and friendly and safe and a joy to walk through, whether you're a resident or a tourist, even if it means paying a few extra cents or even a couple of extra dollars on larger purchases to support it.

Sam's isn't the only independent store in Brattleboro where I've had this kind of experience, but there are also so many small shops that deserve high praise. I, for one, will happily make the drive to Brown and Roberts to buy things large and small, without regard to the price anywhere else. They earn my fervent loyalty with every visit. It doesn't matter how much or little I spend; it doesn't matter whether the person I interact with recognizes me; it doesn't matter if I'm buying housewares or getting my saw serviced. They're friendly, helpful, easygoing and professional, and that ethos of terrific customer service survived the change of ownership a few years back. Kudos.

I've found it the same with Boomerang and the bike shops, with Everyone's Books and Brattleboro Books, and with Experienced Goods and countless other places.

Not every store will have the vibe or products or price point that will meet the needs of every single person. But doesn't every store's survival require that it create a retail environment that encourages loyal patronage?

* * *

I know to a moral degree of certainty that my experience at Sam's is not shared by everyone - it may not even be shared by many - but I highly doubt my experience is unique.

I'm also not suggesting that the loss of Sam's isn't anything but a significant loss.

I'm sad for Brattleboro. It's such a great walking town. A gigantic vacant building on a key block of Main Street puts that at grave risk. I'm also sad that I'm not sad about Sam's. I wish I had the kind of memories so many folks have of that place.

The news coverage I've read about the store's demise lacks some of the nuance that I think is at least a small part of the story of why stores - including Sam's - fail or close. I'm sure the economic externalities are a bear, maybe an insurmountable bear, for some retail establishments.

But there's some part of the story that might warrant a little bit of self-reflection or self-auditing on the part of store owners. Small, local, independent stores aren't entitled to patronage because they're small, local, independent stores. I don't need to be treated as special, but I don't want to feel like my patronage is irrelevant or owed or taken for granted.

My individual decision about where to shop has zero effect on whether a store thrives or closes. But maybe, just maybe, my experience at Sam's was a shared one, and our collective decision made a noticeable dent in Sam's balance sheet.

We'll never know.

This Voices Viewpoint by Cara Cheyette was written for The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

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