Jimmie Keel watched a handful of customers wander around Aubuchon Hardware last Sunday, plucking what they could from the now-barren shelves that line the Essex Jct. store.

The scene might have resembled a disaster movie or prep for an incoming storm, were it not for the bargains promised by a yellow banner above the entrance, or the signs taped to the windows, warning of the end to an era.

The stream of customers remained steady through the weekend, and though Keel managed the store for less than a year, many of those who stopped in knew him by name.

“It hurts to see ‘em,” Keel said, looking at the ground. “I feel like I’m letting ‘em down.”

Aubuchon officially ended a 50-plus-year run at the Essex Jct. shopping center at 5 p.m. this Tuesday, when Keel locked up the store for the very last time. In its place will go Planet Fitness, which plans to bid farewell to its River Rd. gym after more than 10 years there.

Aubuchon’s departure comes after a prolonged period of flagging sales at the store that decades ago was one the chain’s most profitable stores, according to Bernard Aubuchon, the company’s executive vice president. But he said the proliferation of so-called box stores has brought the store to a point where “the growth stopped and started going backward.”

“We’ve tried remodeling the store. We put some good effort into trying to stay here, but it’s just not working,” said Aubuchon, whose grandfather started the chain of stores in Pittsburgh, Mass. 110 years ago.

 

Planet Fitness, meanwhile, is expected to move in after work to outfit the space wraps up sometime between next summer and fall, according to the Pearl St. shopping center’s owner, David Hauke. He said he will miss having Aubuchon as a tenant but acknowledged turnover is a part of owning any retail space.

  A manager at Planet Fitness in Essex declined to confirm the move, calling it “confidential,” and referred The Reporter to the company’s regional headquarters, where an official who declined to share his name said the location on River Road would relocate in late 2019. He wouldn’t say if the gym’s members had been informed.

According to Brian Marcotte, president of Pinewood Manors Inc., which owns the River Rd. complex, the gym’s move comes out of necessity. Marcotte said he declined to extend the gym’s lease because he needed to free up space for his other tenants, who have been in the complex longer and are on the verge of expansion.

“It’s tough,” Marcotte said. “I’d like to have everyone here, but I only have so much room.”  He added it’s too early to say which ones may move into the space.

Across town at the gym’s soon-to-be home, Hauke is working on relocating some of his tenants, too, but also declined to share specifics. One of those tenants is Garry Montague, who runs his barbershop out of a retail space next door.

Montague wasn’t too surprised by Aubuchon’s announcement. He said he knew the store was looking to move for a few years now, and citing the impact of Lowe’s, summarized the change matter-of-factly.

“Everybody gets squeezed out by someone,” he said. (It should be noted Lowe’s has also struggled as of late: The company announced earlier this month it planned to close 51 stores across the U.S. and Canada, though the two in Chittenden County aren’t affected.)

Reached on the phone mid-haircut, Montague wasn’t sure exactly where his shop would be next year but said he planned to stay within the shopping center.

News of the shakeup quickly spread on social media, with rumblings that other shopping center businesses were closing to make room for the gym. But like Garry’s, several businesses on either side of Aubuchon – Clay’s and Quality Bake Shop – confirmed they will remain within the center.

Still, Aubuchon’s departure alone was enough to sadden some, like Karen Alderman, who had stopped in the store just last week. She noted the location’s convenience ¬– just a short drive from her business in the village – and said she valued shopping in a place where the staff could always find what she was looking for.

“I could even hand them my whole list,” she said, and unlike seeking help in box stores, “I never had to look for anybody.”  Indeed, despite one link in a chain of more than 100 stores nationwide, Aubuchon felt like a local store to some, the type of place you grew up with, or as Alderman put it, where “you felt like you mattered when you walked in the door.”

A third-generation
family businessman, Aubuchon acknowledged closing a store is never ideal. He stressed the change is not a sign of a company in straights, but a move to trim some dead weight.

“It’s a lack of sales. Lack of profits,” he said. “That’s the way it goes.” The sting still felt fresh to some of his employees, however, who spent the last several weeks saying goodbye.

“We’ve even had them cry on us,” Keel said of his customers.

“Ah, don’t even go there,” replied Nann Stenson, his assistant manager. “Because they do.”

“They do,” Keel echoed. “They cry, because we’ve been a fixture in Essex for a long, long time.”

Keel and Stenson seem to have come to terms with the move. Keel suspected the store might close when he took over this April and said he could have gone elsewhere, but he enjoyed working for a family-oriented company. Plus, he liked his co-workers.

“To me, the employees are what makes you or breaks you,” the manager said. He’s thankful his employees still have jobs and has no hard feelings for Aubuchon, even if he now must make a 70-mile trek from St. Albans down to a store in Waterbury.

“It is what it is,” he said.

Stenson is relocating to a store in South Burlington. She, too, shared sadness with the closure, explaining she’s been in Essex for more than four years, making her the store’s longest tenured employee.

“This was gonna be my forever home. But” she said, sighing with a shrug, “start new.”