Smokeshire Design combines history and local artisans.
By Lyza Danger Gardner
Appearing in The Vermont Journal on December 7, 2017
CHESTER, Vt. – There’s something about the old general store in the hamlet of Gassetts that has long appealed to Nancy and Hugh Pennell. The long-time Chester residents recently realized a vision years or, perhaps, even decades in the making, recently opening their own fine woodwork and home wares store – Smokeshire Design – in the freshly-renovated historic building.
Nancy Pennell stands in the airy front room, hand-finished by husband Hugh with slate and detailed woodwork accents, surrounded by shelves arrayed with Simon Pearce glassware and Andrew Pearce wood bowls.
“I’ve long had a fascination with thinking about life in small villages 100, 200 years ago, without the modern conveniences, when distances meant so much more than they do today. And I imagine the thriving little community here in Gassetts, when it would take a long time to get to Chester or Ludlow,” said Nancy, sipping coffee as she reminisced about the genesis of the story that led, ultimately, to the store as it lives today. “And Hugh has always wanted to have his own store and sell his own furniture.”
Nowadays, the Chester-Ludlow stretch can be negotiated in about 20 minutes, and motorists zip by the store, sited midway between the two towns along a broad westerly curve of Vermont Route 103. But when the Pennells moved to the area in the 1960s, the building still housed a general store and a post office. Sometime in the late 1970s, the general store was shuttered, and eventually the family that ran it – the Austins – moved away. The building changed hands several times before ultimately falling into abandoned disrepair.
For years, the Pennells’ ideas remained on hold. Nancy Pennell continued to envision that stewardship of the historical assets of Gassetts, like the old general store building, could help rekindle the community’s vitality, but the demands of life and family and a certain amount of self-doubt interfered. “I didn’t have the wherewithal or the time or the energy – I didn’t know how to do it.” For his part, Hugh, a serial entrepreneur juggling numerous businesses and projects, lacked the free time to devote to the project.
Then there came a “knock at the door,” according to Nancy. Seven years ago, the building became available by bank auction, and the Pennell couple purchased it. Several things “merged together at a time in our life when we needed to be doing something – and it seemed like a good idea,” she said.
Still, it took years to fully refurbish the building. Dealing with the basement alone took up a full summer. Life threw up some roadblocks, too. Hugh suffered a serious injury requiring many months of recovery. But, as Nancy explains, “Hugh is one of those people who makes things happen – and he brings you along.”
Above the cashier’s counter hangs a sepia-toned, textured painting of sheep – local sheep painted by local artist Amy Mosher. Mosher is one of about a dozen Vermont artisans and producers whose works are currently available at the store. The seasonal palette in the store is has a natural linen-and-blond-wood vibe: the earthy, natural feel of Nicolas Seidner’s ceramics; the warmth of a cherry dining table made by Clearlake Furniture; Rebecca Haas’ jewelry gracefully displayed on a bed of river rocks.
Nancy sums up the years-long project: “We were delighted to be able to save this historic building. People have come to us and said that they’re so glad that the building has been remembered and refurbished.”