By Gareth Henderson
One of Woodstock’s most popular downtown establishments shut its doors just before Christmas after the tenants were reportedly asked to leave.
Woodstock Coffee and Tea owner Mary Urban said she had tried to reach an agreement on back rent that dated back to early fall. But she said the landlord, Manhattan Skyline Management, would not work with her or others who wanted to buy the business, and she was asked to vacate much sooner than expected.
“I feel like I lost my home,” Urban told the Standard Monday. “I don’t know what my plans are next; this happened too quickly for me to make plans. I hope this is a catalyst to make the locals more aware of who really owns their town.”
Woodstock attorney Tom Hayes, who represented Skyline Management in this matter, said there was a good-faith effort to reach a deal with Urban and co-owner Calvin Bristow.
“The owner’s agent tried to work with them, but they weren’t able to make the rent,” Hayes said. “They hadn’t paid since September and indicated they weren’t going to be able to pay.” The monthly rent for the space was $2,462, according to Hayes.
Customers this week lamented the loss of this popular gathering spot for the community. Gary Smith, who has owned the Woodstock Pharmacy for over 30 years, dropped in for his coffee just about every day for the five years Urban owned the shop.
“I’m sad to see it go,” Smith said. “It was multi-generational, multi-cultural; I think it was an asset to the community.”
Beyond that sentiment, however, Smith also hoped the community would take the broad view and try to open up more communication with non-resident commercial landlords here. He hoped that a wider effort like this, involving the Chamber of Commerce and merchants, would communicate to the non-local landlords that their decisions can have a deep impact on the fabric of the village.
“It’s no longer under the control of local people,” Smith said.
Urban, a 25-year-old Woodstock Union High School graduate, had worked at the coffee shop for nearly nine years. She bought the business five years ago from Dave Thomas and continued the operation. Urban is the principal owner, with Bristow and her brother Tom Urban as co-owners.
Mary Urban said the situation with the landlord started to go downhill at the beginning of fall, when she started to fall behind in rent.
“I sent a letter to the landlord, explaining that the economy was severely hurting the business,” Urban said.
Urban went on to tell the landlord that she had multiple buyers for the business, who would purchase the business at her asking price, and pay the back rent in exchange for the lease. The lease was due to end Feb. 1, 2011.
According to Urban, the landlord told potential buyers that the new lease would be for $3,500 per month for five years with 5 percent annual interest. Then, she said, the landlord opted not to give the lease to anyone. Urban went on to say that the landlord called threatening to sue her. She said a letter from the landlord on Dec. 12 carried the same message.
“I tried to work out a deal,” Urban said.
And in mid-December, she thought she had done so. According to Urban, the landlord said that if she was out of his building on the Monday after Christmas (Dec. 27) she would owe no back rent. On Dec. 20 at 4:45 p.m., Urban said, one of the landlord’s representatives came to the shop saying she had to be out by 5 p.m.
“I closed the next day and started moving everything out,” Urban said.
Hayes said he sent Urban a “standard notice” by mail in November, saying that if they moved by a certain date, the owner wouldn’t seek the back rent.
“Mary just never seemed to understand what that date was,” Hayes said. “Everybody else seemed to.”
During the rapid moving process, Urban said many customers came by – only to find their favorite coffee spot gone. One of those patrons was Fernando Ramos of Pomfret, who dropped by with his wife, Ruby, and his son, Noah, who was waiting for a hot chocolate. Ramos had been a customer since Urban bought the shop five years ago, and he enjoyed the chance to chat in Spanish with Bristow from time to time. Ramos called Woodstock Coffee and Tea a “community center,” where people gathered and caught up with friends.
“I think the community’s going to miss having a place like that,” he said.
As of Monday, there was no word on whether a new tenant would be going into the former coffee shop space. Woodstock Zoning Administrator Michael Brands said Monday morning that he hadn’t heard of any new proposals for the space. Any new proposals would have to adhere to the current zoning permit, or seek a new one from the town.
By Gareth Henderson