The shelves are half-empty. A last candy cane hangs on a small display by the register, with a “Take One,” sign taped to it. The Christmas lights are still up, and somewhat appropriately, a deflated Santa sits collecting dust in the corner.
Years ago, Vineyard Electronics would have been bustling with people; buying their first word processor, or their first cell phone, or getting “that thingamajig that goes in the the round thingy” for their stereo. But those days are long gone. The store has been losing money for several years, and after three decades of providing the electronics needs of Islanders, Linda Sibley, owner of Vineyard Electronics, is pulling the plug.
“I’m just amazed how quickly word has gotten out,” she told The Times, sitting in her office in the back of the store on Tuesday. “The first time I mentioned this to anyone was Saturday.”
The Internet — the reason her decision got around the Island so quickly — is the primary reason Ms. Sibley is going out of business. “It’s impossible for an independent retailer to compete with the Internet,” she said.
“You can order something at Amazon at five today and have it tomorrow,” longtime employee Simon Bollin said. Mr. Bollin, also the Aquinnah fire chief, has worked at the store for 24 years, starting as part-time help while he was still a student at Tisbury School.
Ms. Sibley said the knockout blow to her business was the RadioShack bankruptcy filing last February. “People were asking us daily if we were going out of business, and saying they hope we don’t go away. Honestly, we probably should have,” she said. Ms. Sibley said the loss of AT&T, a result of the RadioShack woes, was also a big blow to business. “Every time a new iPhone came out, we would be flooded,” she said. With the loss of RadioShack, Ms. Sibley had to deal with numerous wholesalers, whose per-unit prices were sometimes higher than she could get ordering on Amazon.
“It’s all about volume now,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the future of independent retailers on the Island.”
Going out at the register
Ms. Sibley estimates she’s worked at the store a minimum of 60 hours a week for over half her adult life. “Which is fine with me,” she said.
Summing up her affinity for her work, Ms. Sibley recalled a joke she heard recently, inspired by the financial crisis in Greece, with a first-generation Greek-American mother telling her daughter, “In the old country, our people can retire at age 55. In America, Greeks die standing at the cash register.” “I have always said I plan to die standing at the cash register,” Ms. Sibley joked. “I’m 73 and well old enough to retire. I don’t know what else I’m going to do with myself.”
Although she’s the longest-serving member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), Ms. Sibley said she’ll still need to find more to do. “Maybe I’ll go out standing at somebody else’s cash register,” she said, laughing.
Ms. Sibley has a clear affinity for employees, past and present. “We call Simon ‘The Wizard,’ Ms. Sibley said. “Anytime there’s something technical we can’t answer, we just go to The Wizard.”
Asked what he was going to do when the store closes, which Ms. Sibley estimates at between two weeks and a month, Mr. Bollin shrugged with a slight grin: “I honestly don’t know.”
Ms. Sibley said longtime employee Brett Rose, the towering, rail-thin, unfailingly upbeat presence behind the counter, has already moved to Sarasota, Fla. “Brett was tired of the cold,” she said, adding that she just wrote a job recommendation for him. “He was a retail animal. He’s so good with people and so patient with difficult people. He was a joy to have.”
Gracie, Ms. Sibley’s 11-year-old white-spotted black Lab, is still on staff and snoozing peacefully despite the phone ringing nonstop and a blaring and busy police scanner.
Time to unplug
Ms. Sibley said her business has been losing money since the store moved to the current location at 426 State Road in the spring of 2012 — sales were down 48 percent last year alone. She and her husband Don bought the mixed-use 11,500-square-foot building as a way to cut costs. “It did help reduce costs, but it wasn’t enough,” she said. Ms. Sibley said she intends to sell the building, which also has additional retail space and two affordable apartments upstairs. She said the apartments will remain affordable — e.g., rented to residents who are at 80 percent or below of area median income (AMI) — because it was a condition of the approval from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), where she has been a stalwart elected commissioner from West Tisbury since 1992. The apartments were required to compensate for nitrogen levels that exceeded MVC criteria, even though she had a new septic system installed to replace a cesspool. “The apartments will remain affordable until the town runs a sewer line in front of the building,” she said. She said she’s already had inquiries about the building, and the potential buyers weren’t fazed by the affordable apartments.
Ms. Sibley began working at the store as an employee in 1981, and bought the business in 1984. She summered on the Island growing up, and moved here full time after getting her dual masters’ degree in Russian literature and social psychology at Harvard. She said her life of academia took a sharp detour 42 years ago when she and her husband Don, then teaching at the Museum School, decided they wanted to move to the country from Randolph, and friend Maitland Edey told them about a parcel of land in West Tisbury, where Ms. Sibley and her husband live to this day.
Ms. Sibley said her favorite part of the job was helping people. “At least a third of the day was time spent helping people,” she said. “Amazon can’t help someone who asks, ‘Do you have that thing that plugs into the thingamajig?’ A lot of what we do we don’t make money off of, but it’s what I think our customers need the most.” Ms. Sibley is an anachronism, a purveyor of technology who is admittedly very low-tech. “I hardly ever use a cell phone,” she said. “I’m the fossil that owns the place. But I do have the knowledge that can point people in the right direction.”
“You’re an institution,” Edgartown resident and Gazette photographer Mark Lovewell, there to cover the story, said. “I remember my little Tandy computer that I bought from you and raised my kids on it.”
“I’m really going to miss it,” she said. “I don’t want to retire, but when you’re in a [financial] hole, you have to stop digging.”