WILLIAMSTOWN -- With little warning, The Store at Five Corners, which had been the longest continuously operating store in the country, closed on Sunday, Feb. 10.
The store's proprietor, Ryan Hasset, was informed last week of the decision, which was made by Franklin Lewis, the store's owner since 2009. Lewis said the decision was made to curtail financial losses, while Hasset and others have disputed whether that was a reasonable cause.
Since June 2012, when Hasset became the store's proprietor, he has sought to revive the store's roots as a traditional gathering place in South Williamstown, where the building has stood since around 1765.
"This is the meeting place," said Hasset. "This is the heart of this area. Everybody comes here, they have meetings here Even neighbors that don't see each other very much, they see each other here."
Throughout the weekend, members of the community visited the store to pay their respects, sometimes emotionally, to the six members of the Hasset family and seven other store employees.
"It's like a funeral dirge," said Hasset's wife, Heather, on Saturday.
Lewis had purchased the store in 2009 and granted proprietorship to his son-in-law, Robert Walsh, and daughter, Kristen Lewis-Walsh. In 2010, he purchased the neighboring Green River Farm, with the intention of combining the two properties to attract more business.
"I had no interest in making money from the store," said Lewis.
Lewis currently lives in Naples, Florida, but also has a home in Bennington.
With the store gone, said Hasset, South Williamstown and the surrounding region would be without a well-appreciated stopping place at the intersection of Routes 7, 43 and 22. People commuting between Williamstown and Pittsfield, travelling to Tanglewood in the summer, or visiting ski areas in the winter have been among the store's frequent customers.
"We get a lot of ski traffic from Vermont. People from New York, going up, skiing up in Vermont, coming back, and then they'll turn on 43, head over to 22 and down on the turnpike," Hasset said. "So we got a lot of traffic from there, but our focus was local."
Throughout much of 2010, Lewis said, complications surrounding the zoning requirements for a newly built playground on the Green River Farm property cost him several thousand dollars.
"Then by the end of 2010, I realized that I wasn't really interested in managing the corner and that I'd suffered tremendous financial losses on the property, to the tune of over a million-and-a-half dollars." With "no end in sight," he said, and with his son-in-law and daughter having been unable to make a profit, he ceased operations of both the farm and the store.
The Five Corners property is zoned for residential use, but because of the store's long history, it has been "grandfathered in" as a retail establishment. However, a clause in the zoning bylaws states that if the store remains vacant for more than two years, it will revert to residential use and no longer be allowed to serve as a store.
Due partly to the urging of the South Williamstown Community Association, Lewis reopened the store in June 2012, convinced that keeping the store open would be a better option financially.
Samuel Edgerton, a local historian and former Williams College professor, who has co-written a short history of The Store at Five Corners, was on the board of SWCA at the time.
"We tried very hard to entice him to at least detach the store from the other property and sell that separately," he said. "Because that was a more attractive business, whereas the farm itself - especially with the condition of dairy farming in this state - was not very attractive." But Lewis insisted on keeping the two properties together, Edgerton said. "He asked for a very high price for the whole property - all connected."
Lewis mentioned that in the past there had been a degree of antagonism between the two properties. "There are things you can consume on the farm premises that you can't consume on the store premises," he said. "The farm has the potential of [having] products, and the store has a good retail location. So there are a lot of synergies between the two properties."
"I thought that the whole was greater than it's parts," he said.
Hasset had previously worked for Lewis's company, and had expressed an interest in running the store. Lewis agreed to make an initial investment of $50,000, which included refurbishing the kitchen and improving the store's appearance, so that Hasset "would have a real good shot" at succeeding. In June, Hasset became the store's proprietor, but the property remained under Lewis's ownership, and the deed was still registered in Robert Walsh's name.
Lewis had no influence over how the store was operated, Mrs. Hasset said on Saturday. "Not as far as the day-to-day, the way that we interact with the customers, our focus on local things It is his store; we are employees. But as far as the feel of the store, that was our mission, to bring it back to a country store."
According to Edgerton, the two men never had a contractual agreement, but Hasset had been seeking one, which would have allowed him to obtain a lease on the property for two or three years - and to avert the zoning clause, were Lewis to lose interest in the store.
Hasset was reluctant to discuss the details of the store's closing, but according to Edgerton, the agreement had been that following the initial investment, Hasset would be responsible for handling the store's accounts and budgeting, without any additional investment on Lewis's part - a plan that Lewis said failed.
Lewis indicated that the Hassets had given their all to running the store, but had been unable to succeed.
"They felt that they'd be able to operate that store and grow a lot of community support, make it really nice," Lewis said. "But that didn't work out and they wound up - not they personally because they were paid, they were getting salaries - but the money ran out and then some." Lewis sited the existence of unpaid bills and looming debts as his reason for closing the store.
But Hasset's financial documents seem to contradict those claims, said Edgerton, who in recent days has been reviewing the documents on Hasset's behalf, hoping to make better sense of the situation, which presents several unanswered questions.
Although sales at the store had been suffering from the winter doldrums, Edgerton said, summer sales were good, and Hasset had been repaying Lewis's initial investment in installments. Edgerton has not found any evidence supporting Lewis's claim that he was loosing money on the store.
"The big problem is that he claimed that he over-bankrolled the store, which is not true," Edgerton said. "He did set the store up, but Ryan very carefully kept the accounts on his own hand and did all the expenses himself." Lewis believed "that the store was going to cost him a lot of money, which is not true," Edgerton said.
Lewis claims to have lost $12,000 since the store reopened last June, and that he would lose an additional $85,000 between now and when the store becomes profitable, said Edgerton. "And that is patently not true, according to Ryan, and I think Ryan is correct."
The residential zoning clause is unlikely to be altered legislatively, Edgerton said, noting the domino effect that could result throughout the area, with other property owners making similar requests.
"The zoning commission, so far as we know, have said that they have to be absolutely draconic about this. They cannot make exceptions for anybody, even [considering] the historical conditions of that store," he said.
"As of Sunday the clock starts running. Two years from now if there's not a store in there, that area will be re-zoned as residential, and the store will not be able to continue."
While Edgerton, the Hassets and many others feel that the store's value to the community is immeasurable, Lewis viewed the loss from a mostly economic standpoint.
The zoning clause, he said, "doesn't mean anything to me because if that store were torn down, it would mean a lot for the scenery, but it wouldn't impact the value of that real estate much. Because the store in itself isn't worth very much."
But he also suggested that removing the building would potentially benefit the farm: " if the building were torn down, even though the corner would be residential, it would be part of the farm," he said. "The ten acres where the farm buildings are has no frontage on Route 7. That would give it frontage on Route 7."
Lewis will remain the owner of both properties. Although he has expressed an interest in continuing operations at the farm, he is not expecting to reopen the store, and his stance on keeping the two properties connected has not changed. He said he has no plans to develop the property.
Hasset said he will not resume proprietorship of the store, and is in the process of consulting with his lawyer, Sherwood Guernsey, and others about his options moving forward.
"I think we're going to sleep for a couple of days," said Mrs. Hasset. "[We've] spent a lot of 20 hour days over the last months, but after that I'm not really sure. But we'll land on our feet. We've got a good family and we're hard workers - and a lot of energy. We'll see."