A historic West Tisbury store — a frequent stop on the Obama family’s presidential vacations on-Island — is undergoing a change in management.
In a press release issued Thursday, Vineyard Trust, which owns Alley’s General Store along with 19 other historic landmarks on the Island, announced a partnership with the owners of LeRoux — Michael and April Levandowski. The Levandowskis will license and operate the general store in West Tisbury.
The store has been under the management of the Vineyard Trust, which has found it difficult to maintain the inventory and to generate a profit, Funi Burdick, CEO and president of Vineyard Trust, told The Times. The Levandowskis initially offered to provide training, and ultimately that led to discussions about them leasing the general store.
“It doesn’t support itself,” Burdick said. “We’re putting a lot of money into something that barely breaks even.”
Burdick is confident that the Levandowskis can make it work based on their success in other retail businesses. “The intention is that they will run Alley’s General Store. It will remain called Alley’s General Store. They are required to maintain the general inventory that is there. My motivation is that they have the expertise, and the financial resources, to expand the inventory and more fully express a general store than quite frankly the Trust is able to,” she said. “People really wanted a general store, more hardware, a richer, more complete inventory. That’s a very expensive idea … What we’re excited about is April and Michael have the expertise to really dig into that and to find who the vendors are and have the point-of-sale system to control the inventory and to really make Alley’s General Store the general store it needs to be, in a way that Alley’s can’t.”
Michael Levandowski is a member of the Vineyard Trust board of directors, according to the Trust’s website.
Both he and Burdick said the potential conflict of interest was explored, and it was determined there wasn’t one so long as Levandowski doesn’t participate in any discussions having to do with Alley’s. Burdick said if a conflict does become apparent, Levandowski would step down from the board.
“I brought it up to the board members, and they vetted the whole thing,” Levandowski told The Times. “It was discussed and it was accepted to not be a conflict of interest.”
LeRoux has two stores in Vineyard Haven, and several others off-Island.
Even before the deal was announced, word started to spread in the change of management on social media.
A post on the Islanders Talk Facebook group regarding the leasing arrangement garnered a variety of responses. Jim Feiner commented on the post, saying, “Alley’s has always been more than just a store — it’s been a public resource and destination that so many have depended on. Until its most recent and radical change to the upscale boutique market, it was THE place to go for us up-Island folks.”
Rachel Baird said in a comment that the deal seems to be “the continuing commercialization of Alley’s.” “It used to be a place to gather, now it is a beautiful old building façade on the outside. Inside it is a high-priced gift store for tourists, and so silently falls another beautiful tradition on the Island.”
Geoff Parkhurst commented, saying he thinks LeRoux taking over is “another step into oblivion” for the Vineyard landmark.
“Maybe they should see if Walmart wants to run it. Things would be cheaper, and we could just accept that Alley’s is gone. Put a Starbucks in the vegetable stand, and a mini-IKEA in where 7a is,” he said.
Other folks had a different take on the partnership, such as Scott Tuttle, who noted that if you were to compare the existing product lines between Alley’s and any other business on-Island, LeRoux “is the most complementary year-round business.”
Simon Athearn commented that LeRoux taking over could be good news for the store; after such a disappointing change in management the last time around, “LeRoux or any hungry entrepreneur would try harder,” he wrote.
Levandowski squashed any idea that he’s planning a West Tisbury LeRoux. “Our intent is to run it as a general store, which LeRoux is not,” he said. “Having [the lease agreement] happen so late in the year when it comes to retail … the changes we’re going to make and product assortment will take time. We’re going to run it as a traditional general store with appropriate product placement.”
Neither Levandowski nor Burdick would disclose the financial agreement of the three-year lease, though Levandowski and Burdick both said separately that it’s favorable to the Vineyard Trust.
According to the press release, “Alley’s General Store is the Island’s oldest retail business. When it opened in 1858, it provided householders and local farmers and fishermen with basic staples as well as a retail outlet for their goods. Completely renovated by the Trust in 1993 and recently updated, Alley’s still delivers in its reputation as ‘dealers in almost everything.’”
“The Trust’s primary mission is to restore living institutions to their rightful place in island life and ensure that they will remain landmarks for life,” Burdick said in the release. “One of the ways we do this is by partnering with organizations and businesses who are uniquely qualified to continue business operations once the landmarks have been restored.”
According to the release, the Levandowskis have owned and operated multiple business on the Vineyard, including the Crocker House Inn, Martha’s Vineyard Millworks in Vineyard Haven, multiple retail stores, the Woodland Market, clothing and and shoe stores, as well as their current portfolio of LeRoux housewares stores on and off Martha’s Vineyard.
“Having lived on the Island since 1988, we have a deep appreciation for Island life and the sense of place so pervasive on the Island. April and I believe deeply in Vineyard Trust’s work to preserve the living landmarks that reflect that authenticity,” Michael Levandowski said in the release. “Our business philosophy has always been grounded in serving the community. We feel that operating Alley’s General Store, which is such a central feature of Island life, is a natural fit with our philosophy.”
Alley’s General Store will retain its current name and will remain open during the operational transfer. Vineyard Trust will continue to own and maintain the historic building that houses Alley’s General Store.
“I think if the Island would give them a chance, I think they’re going to do a good job,” Burdick said.
Updated with interviews with Burdick and Levandowski.