Putney General Store closed for now

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PUTNEY — Following the death of Putney General Store proprietor and pharmacist Jim Heal, the store is closed until further notice, as indicated by the hand-written note posted on the door.

Heal, 62, was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer in early August 2016. Despite initial optimism about his treatment, he succumbed on Friday, Dec. 30.

"Jim's final words the day before he died were, 'I love you all,'" said his wife, Jane Heal. "He wanted everybody to know. He really wanted to come back and be the community pharmacist. We're very sorry it ended this way and we had to close so abruptly."

Jane also thanked the community for its support during Jim's illness, including the fundraiser organized in Putney by Peter Case and radio station WKVT on Nov. 19, 2016.

The history of the PGS as a commercial property stretches back over 200 years. Its more recent history is somewhat complicated. In 2000, after 24 years of operating the store, Robert and Anne Fairchild sold the property to Daniel Mitnik and Shari Gliedman. In 2006, Erhan Oge and Tugce Okamus bought it from them. An accidental fire, possibly electrical, that broke out in the store on the night of May 8, 2008, damaged much of the upper half of the building. Because his insurance wouldn't cover a rebuild, Oge decided to sell the property.

Community sentiment clearly favored rebuilding what many have called the social center of the town. Given the historic nature of the building, the Putney Historical Society, reasoning that a non-profit entity might have more opportunity than a private owner to pursue grant money for historical restoration, bought the property in November 2008. As owner, the PHS would then lease the property to an operator.

After much effort, the PHS received nearly $400,000 in grant money and $100,000 in local contributions, and rebuilding began. By late fall 2009, the new roof was being installed.

Then, on Nov. 1, 2009, a four-alarm fire, officially determined to be arson, tore through the nearly completed renovation and burned the building to the foundation. It was a total loss.

The community was devastated but determined to rebuild. Fundraising efforts began all over again. Volunteers from the community offered labor and materials. In December 2011, the store reopened under the management of Ming Chou, who signed a 20-year lease with the PHS. In March 2013, Ming announced he would be leaving the store for health reasons. The PHS retained ownership of the property, but the business assets—equipment and merchandise—were Ming's to sell.

At this point, Jim Heal, who had been director of the pharmacy at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, came forward with a plan.

"He wanted to introduce a pharmacy," said Lyssa Papazian, a member of the all-volunteer PHS. "He would run the pharmacy upstairs and have people manage the General Store downstairs. The Historical Society had to approve the assignment of the lease from Ming to Jim."

Putney residents had talked for years about having a pharmacy in town.

"We have been pretty happy with the way Jim configured the store," Papazian continued. "He changed the focus downstairs away from groceries and more to a caf where people could sit and visit. I feel awful for the family."

Heal contributed much to the community, usually behind the scenes, said Susan Kochinskas, Putney Foodshelf board member.

"Jim was such a supporter of the Putney Foodshelf," she said. "He started the Breakfast with Santa fundraiser, and he did it all—got donations of food and items for the raffle, arranged for the people to work at the breakfast. Steve Haisley took it over this December because he knew Jim really wanted it to happen."

(The event was held at The Gleanery Restaurant and raised funds for the Putney Foodshelf and Putney Family Services.)

"We had the Foodshelf bread and milk delivered at the store," Kochinskas continued. "And if there were no eggs at the Vermont Food Bank, we could order eggs through Jim."

Now the town is faced not only with mourning Jim's death, but also with wondering what will happen with the General Store property.

"The Historical Society has been pretty committed to that property," Papazian said, "to insure we have a store in town. I feel incredibly strongly that the General Store is key to downtown."

Papazian noted that the general store model is a business with very little margin.

"We wanted to have a community-supported enterprise (the PHS) to hold the real estate," she said, "to keep the debt as low as possible so the lease is operable. That's still a huge "We're in a holding pattern right now as we wait for clarity from the family and from the state," Papazian continued. "We hope the doors aren't closed for long."

Nancy A. Olson can be reached at olsonnan47

@gmail.com.

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