Filling Their Father's Shoes
Back in the day, not so long ago, communities all over Vermont had their iconic local stores and markets, where neighbors were apt to come across each other in the aisles. Merchants stocked inventory perfectly suited to their customers. They knew how their customers’ tastes and needs differed from the mass American market.
In central Vermont, hands down, that store was Harry’s Discount Department Store. From approximately the 1950s through the ’80s, Harry’s sold clothing, boots, and more on the Barre-Montpelier Road — U.S. 302 in Berlin. From Marshfield to Moretown, from Northfield to Worcester, everybody went to Harry’s.
“Harry’s was a superstore before anyone knew what a superstore was,” says Mark McCarthy, who was born in 1966, making him old enough to remember Harry’s’ heyday. Owner Harry Lipman had the idea of leasing space in the store to outside companies, so it gradually came to include a Record Town for now-coveted vinyl discs, a KB Toys department, a home-grown discount pharmacy, and a grocery. But the staple was men’s and women’s clothing (children’s, too), and those products were exactly right for a Vermont still closely tied to agriculture, outdoor labor, hunting, and fishing.
McCarthy’s dad, Lenny McCarthy, landed his first job at Harry’s as a 17-year-old kid from Graniteville. Lenny’s father was a butcher who also bought and sold horses and ran a small antiques business; his mother was a schoolteacher, making for a Vermont heritage that may have contributed to Lenny’s restlessness when, after he had worked at Harry’s for 20-some years, the Lipmans sold the store to Stuarts, a national chain.
“Stuarts thought, ‘We’ll just come up and put our thumbprint on it,’” says Mark McCarthy.
Lenny stayed on for a few years after the sale, then left in 1990 to create what has become a pretty iconic clothing-and-accessories name in its own right: Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel. (Stuarts filed for Chapter 11 and closed the former Harry’s store in 1995.)
The first Lenny’s, in downtown Barre, was a fairly humble, 2,200-square-foot retail space, but local folks soon realized that its merchandise was particularly suitable for the Vermont way of life. It was also a time, McCarthy observes, when other long-familiar, family-owned stores along Main Street were beginning to close, as their proprietors aged and the regional retail scene gradually shifted to national chains. Yet Lenny’s thrived, and its tent sales, held at the edge of the municipal parking lot out back, became much-anticipated events for families seeking durable, well-made, and suitably attractive clothing for a largely outdoor lifestyle.
“Our product lines are based on the working-class, blue-collar customer,” says McCarthy, who runs the operation in Barre and has been president of the company since the original “Lenny” retired in 2016. McCarthy’s younger brother, Todd, is vice president and based in Plattsburgh, New York, which is home to what became the fourth — and the newest and largest (15,000 square feet) — Lenny’s store. (A third McCarthy brother, Scott, followed a separate path: He runs a contracting business and a large maple-sugaring operation in the town of Washington.)
Catering to a blue-collar clientele, however, is hardly a limiting factor, because outdoor work and outdoor recreational activities are favored by residents nearly across the board in the rugged North Country. Men and women alike, whether employed by the local highway department, a utility, or a contracting company, whether they farm or tap trees or spend their working hours in an office, are apt to get outside much of the time, tending their property on weekends, hiking the Long Trail, camping or boating or stalking the deer woods. For them, Keen hiking shoes, Dansko women’s sandals, a Carhartt or Kuhl insulated jacket, Patagonia sweaters, and a good pair of dungarees are the attire of choice.
“We sell products that cross boundaries.” McCarthy says. “Our customers are looking for durable, warm clothing for the week or the weekend, as well as for outdoor activities.”
Consequently, Lenny’s has broadened its inventory. Its shelves are stocked with gloves, binoculars, flashlights, ice cleats, water bottles, hiking sticks, and trail guides. The Yeti line (coolers, flasks, ice packs, etc.), McCarthy says, has become “wildly popular,” and this winter, the wintriest in several years, has called for him to restock snowshoes more than once. “Soon we’ll be adding tents and sleeping bags,” he says.
Like its inventory, Lenny’s profile has grown steadily during its 29 years. Lenny expanded that first, leased space in Barre to 4,500 square feet by taking over from the business-machine company next door. In 1994 the company took its first steps beyond Barre, opening a store in St. Albans, where it now occupies 7,000 square feet in Highgate Commons Plaza. Two years later (1996), Lenny’s appeared in Williston, and there, too, it has moved into adjoining spaces, creating what is now an 11,000-square-foot store in Vermont’s most populous county.
In 2004, the McCarthys staked out a larger, more modern and accessible space at the other end of North Main Street in Barre. The first storefront now serves as an outlet store primarily for marked-down products. The Plattsburgh store, on Tom Miller Road, opened in 2014. (The company also owns a New Balance license store in Maple Tree Place in Williston.)
For all its growth, however, McCarthy emphasizes that the values on which the business was founded — connection to the Vermont lifestyle, and hard work shared equally by McCarthy family members and their now-70-some employees, which he still traces back to Harry’s — have not changed. “In that way,” he observes, “I doubt we’re any different from the Vermonters we sell to.” He remembers going in as a youngster to help his father inventory and tag products late into the night, preparing for tent sales the next day, and says it’s still very much a hands-on business.
Mark Mast, vice president for marketing at Northfield Savings Bank, has known McCarthy for nearly 20 years, and backs him up. “They’re there day to day, with their sleeves rolled up, working alongside their employees,” says Mast, referring also to McCarthy’s wife, Kristin, a former teacher, whose duties primarily encompass human resources and payroll. (“She’s got the same work mentality,” McCarthy says appreciatively.)
“I’ve long admired Lenny’s story of leaving Harry’s and branching out on their own,” Mast continues. “You go into their place and a comparable box store, and, if anything, their selection is better and their prices are better. It’s an example of a family-owned business competing successfully [with national chains]. And now Mark and Todd, the second generation, are continuing to grow it.”
Mast, who worked previously in marketing with his wife’s relatives at Bond Auto Parts, says he and McCarthy often discussed the challenges of making a local, family-owned business stable and prosperous in today’s economy. Mast also praises the company’s support of local nonprofits and sports organizations. “And it’s not unheard of,” he adds, “for me to call Mark on a weekend and find out he’s busy putting up their tent that they use for tent sales for someone’s family event or a local nonprofit. He’s very giving of himself and his time.”
Bob Nelson, a fixture of the Barre business community, owns Nelson’s Ace Hardware, two blocks down the street from Lenny’s. He, too, has noticed the McCarthys’ contributions to local activities, and understands its importance from both a business and service perspective. Mark McCarthy coordinates fund-raising sales and other activities with various causes, but cites, particularly, his commitment to Vermont Special Olympics and the Vermont Food Bank. Farther afield, Lenny’s participates with Rerun Shoes, which refurbishes and recycles shoes to donate to budding entrepreneurs in three countries in Africa.
“It’s 100 percent a two-way street,” Nelson emphasizes. “You need to give as much back to the community as the community gives to you. They’ve always understood that.”
McCarthy, who holds an associate’s degree in business from Champlain College, met Kristin (Alterio) at a wedding, and they married 21 years ago. A Massachusetts native, she earned her undergraduate degree in Maine and her master’s degree at Boston University Wheelock College of Education. They have two children at Spaulding High School in Barre — Ned and Ella, who‘s attending the University of Vermont this fall. McCarthy shares the passions of many of his customers. “I’m an avid hunter,” he says. “Deer, duck, and grouse. And I’m active in various outdoors organizations.”
His brother Todd, four years younger, broke the mold, moving to New York City for a few years after school. But he returned in 1992 to join his brother and father in the company. Eventually he managed the Williston store, and then moved to Plattsburgh to live with his partner, Trevor Rabideau, where he was well-positioned to seek out a site for the first Lenny’s store outside Vermont. Todd and Rabideau live in a house overlooking Lake Champlain.
Things have gone smoothly for Lenny’s, which is not lost on Mark. Yet, looking back, he feels that the company was founded on integrity and trust from the outset, assets that have contributed to its success.
“That first store,” he recalls, “was basically filled on a promise. I remember finding invoices from suppliers that were three years old and had not been paid, but we weren’t being leaned on. [Lenny] had built relationships during his time at Harry’s, and they stuck with us.”
As people are doing to this day.
Originally published in the Business People Vermont Magazine, April 2019 edition - http://businesspeoplevermont.com/2019/lennys0419.html