CALAIS — The landmark Maple Corner Country Store and Whammy Bar in Maple Corner has been up for sale for the past two years, without any takers.
Concerned the business might close without a buyer, loyal customers and friends have banded together to organize a shareholder buyout of the store from owners Artie and Nancy Toulis.
The Maple Corner Store Committee has set a deadline of Nov. 1 to close on the purchase of the business for $450,000.
Two public meetings to discuss the shareholder buyout will be held at the Maple Corner Community Center today (Saturday), at 5 p.m., and during the fall foliage festival on Sunday, Oct. 6, at 5:30 p.m.
The Toulises bought the classic country store from Bob and Diane Cleary in summer 2007. Since then, it has remained a popular pit stop and social center for locals.
It is where local children board the school bus, people make a quick stop for coffee and a breakfast sandwich, and a place to find both groceries and a selection of wines. It also offers a more extensive range of home-cooking style foods, including freshly made pizza and sandwiches and the bar features “pub grub.”
The Whammy Bar opened in October 2012 as a small, intimate pub and live music venue in the back of the store. It became an immediate hit with locals and visitors alike. It has been described as the “Cheers of Calais, where everybody knows your name.”
The store also generates income from a rural post office on-site, and there is a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment with loft space and a large deck overlooking a waterfall and stream.
News of the sale, for $490,000, first emerged in a posting by the Toulises on the Calais Front Porch Forum website in July 2017. The Toulises said they also posted it on the store’s website and Facebook page, but did not engage a Realtor to help sell the business.
More recently, customers and friends were worried the Toulises might close the store when no buyers emerged. Members of the store committee said an appraiser said the building still had value if it were converted into apartments.
The first thoughts of staging a shareholder buyout of the business came during a conversation in the store a year ago between local residents Anne Marie Shea and Chris Miller. Shea has worked in the store for more than a decade. Miller is a renowned artist in granite and wood, whose most recent creation was the new Ceres statue atop the golden dome at the State House.
“The seed of this was just neighbors just sitting in the store, chatting,” Shea said.
Discussion led to the formation of the Maple Corner Country Store Committee and the formation of a C corporation, a legal structure for a corporation in which the owners, or shareholders, are taxed separately from the entity.
“We are taking donations but also selling shares to Vermont residents that can become owners of the future Maple Corner Community Store,” said Rob Lamb, the committee’s secretary who drew up the shareholder business plan. “In addition to sustaining an essential community asset, shareholders will get to participate in the governance of the store and, based on our financial projections, may receive an initial small dividend after three to five years of growth and capital improvement expenses. “
Board members said the purchase price for the corporation would be $375,000, plus closing costs, buying out the inventory and the cost of a septic upgrade, bringing the total cost of funds needed to $450,000. The board has already raised $250,000.
“People can make a taxable donation or just a donation to us through the Maple Corner Community Center, and non-Vermont residents can still contribute, and some have,” Clark said. “We also have several people that have invested in the $10,000 and up range. Some of our bigger contributors have expressed that it’s incredibly important to them that we keep this as a store.”
“People who invest have an equal vote and equal voice, as much as anybody else,” Miller noted. “The other thing about owning shares is you are an owner and you have an equity share in the business.”
“A share buys you a vote for who is on the board and the board runs the business,” Shea said. “They hire the general manager who runs the business on a daily basis, but the board makes the big decisions.”
The board would also appoint committees that are assigned to different tasks to manage The Whammy Bar, food and wine offerings in the store and the bar, and work on future expansion plans for the business.
Miller noted the urgency to act after the closure of other country stores in Woodbury and North Montpelier, and a restructuring of the East Calais Store.
“The mon-and-pop model just doesn’t work anymore and community ownership is much more stable,” Miller said, adding that ownership would encourage purchases at the store.
“The store is what keeps me in this community, otherwise it’s just another town,” said Shea said. “People support each other, take care of each other, look out for each other.”
Fellow board member Elizabeth O’Casey said the store was an important social center, particularly for young people, in a digital era. Keeping the store and music venue open was important to reduce rural isolation, she added.
“It’s a really important anchor,” she said.
Another board member, Jamie Moorby, noted many of the of the children growing up in the community would work at the store as their first job.
Visitors to the store Friday supported a shareholder buyout.
“I’m really excited about keeping the store open and about the community coming together to do it,” said Barbara McAndrew. “I think it allows the incredibly important hub that the store is to continue and to keep everybody’s stake in it.”
Andrew Tripp, of Montpelier, added: “These stores are a vanishing entity. In these rural communities, you have the school and if you’re lucky enough to have a store, that makes a town a town in this day and age. It would definitely diminish the quality of life if it were to disappear.”
“I think without the store that you would lose a lot of community,” Nancy Toulis said. “It’s where people come and they chat every day. Community is priceless.”
“We’ve said all along that the most important thing at the store isn’t the stuff in it,” said Artie Toulis. “Every single day there’s something that happens that is not about the store and if that was gone it would be a tremendous loss.”