A “marriage” of
two of America’s
by Rosie Wolf Williams
“A coffee shop is a place you can go to be safe, and there is no obligation,” says Kevin Clayton, who opened Village Wine and Coffee in Shelburne in February 2005. The shop carries wines from small family wineries and brews all manner of coffee.
The building that houses Village Wine and Coffee is somewhat nondescript: a boxy, brick structure that one might drive by without a second thought. But the secret to a good business, and a great life, is simple. Just look inside.
“I call it the ‘Alice in Wonderland experience’” says owner Kevin Clayton. “You can’t tell from the outside what is going on on the inside. I want people to discover the place and say, ‘Wow! I had no idea this was here.’”
Born in Burlington, Clayton moved to Shelburne as a child in 1965, when his father, Harry Clayton, bought Bowenges & Towle, a grocery store located where Village Wine and Coffee now is. “There were seven of us in the house,” he says. “We grew up on all the dented cans in the store.”
Harry eventually developed a shopping center, the Shelburne Shopping Park on Falls Road, and moved the supermarket there in 1967. Clayton started working at the store in high school. “I was being groomed to take over, but [it] held no meaning for me. I needed to find something for myself.”
After high school, Clayton attended the University of Vermont for general studies. He admits he didn’t do very well, and felt disillusioned with education. But in an East-Asian religion course, the demeanor of an assistant teacher intrigued him. “I thought, I don’t know what’s going on, but that guy’s got something.”
One of Clayton’s longtime friends was a student of the Indian meditation guru Prem Rawat. Clayton visited his friend, who lived with a group in New Hampshire, and fell in love with the place and its atmosphere. “I felt an experience inside myself that I hadn’t felt with anything else I had done. Not in my mind, but in my self. I knew I had been looking for that my whole life.” He came home and told his family he was leaving.
In 1979, he went to stay in an ashram in Maine for three and a half years. He worked his way up to the role of assistant manager in a local hardware store. After the ashram closed, Clayton spent some time living with his sister Cathy in Maine. In 1985, he moved back to Vermont to take on a maintenance position at his father’s shopping center. He eventually returned to the grocery store, working his way up from bagger to a managing partnership.
After eight years, his path had led him back to the very store where he had spent his childhood. “I almost had to press ‘restart’ and start all over again in the place I grew up,” Clayton remembers. “The way my dad taught us was, You can have a job in the business, but you are not going to just have a job and not work because you are the boss’s kids. That was a big lesson for me: When you work, you give it everything you have.”
Brad Miller, his partner at the grocery store, invited him to have his first taste of wine by trying out some of the wines from his cellar. “My first tasting of wine was 13 of the best wines of California with 11 years of bottle age,” he says. Clayton eventually took over buying wine for the store, and learned more about wine over a 10-year period.
In 1994, he was introduced to Marcela Pino by one of the owners of O Bread Bakery. They married the next year.
In 2003, needing to shift the energy of his working hours “to something that resonated with my core values,” Clayton left his position at Shelburne Supermarket. “I felt like I could see the karmic wheel coming and that I was going to get run over by it. “ He went to career counseling, not sure of his next step.
Marcela encouraged him to take some time off before deciding his next career move. “My teacher had a facility in Australia,” says Clayton. “I had always wanted to go and I couldn’t because of the time constraints. And I was encouraged to take an extra week and visit all the family wineries in southern Australia.
“There is this real brotherhood of family-run wineries. These people were so nice; they were hard-working farmers bringing an agricultural product. I knew I wanted to stay involved with wine.”
Shelburne Supermarket had been one of the first stores in the mid 1980s to carry Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ products, when it was a fledgling company and few stores carried specialty coffees. Clayton had visited Montreal on many occasions and realized that no one was offering consistent coffees in his own area. So after he returned from Australia, he came up with an idea. He would start a hybrid business: a shop that specializes in coffees, and wines from family-run wineries.
Clayton wanted the store to be in his own community of Shelburne. One of his father’s tenants was thinking of selling her lease, so they agreed on a figure and closed the deal. He dipped into his retirement account to pay off the lease, and now he found himself with no money and a space that needed a lot of work.
His mentor, restaurateur Robert Fuller, was working with community-based financing models where community members lend money to a business without expecting an equity interest. It was tough for Clayton to ask for help. He went to one of his friends with his idea and his need for money. He left with a check for $10,000.
That was the catalyst. Clayton asked 10 people for loans, totaling $100,000, and he was astounded by the positive response. His father, by then retired, jumped in to help with carpentry. “I dusted him off,” Clayton quips, referring to the fact that Harry had worked on homes for every family member except his, which was bought outright.
He hired his nephew Zachary to assist, and the three men completely renovated the 1,400-square-foot space. He outfitted the shop with coffee equipment and a small amount of wine to get started. Village Wine and Coffee opened in February 2005.
“A coffee shop is a place you can go to be safe, and there is no obligation,” he says. “You go to a store and you buy something and leave, or you go to a restaurant and you eat and you leave. At a coffee shop, you buy a coffee and that is your ticket for the day. You can be however you want to be. If you asked me 30 years ago if I would open a wine and coffee shop, I would have asked you what kind of drug you were on. You go through life, you learn, and you gather skills. The thing that helped me was that I had been in the community for 18 years, so I knew people. And they also understood the community aspect of a coffee shop.”
Lori Rowe, a customer, explains that the square brick building houses much more than a commodity. “Kevin took a great concept and created something very special. He has created community in an area where it didn’t really exist before. He has this capacity to make you feel a part of what is happening in this very humming and exciting little enterprise.”
Everything to do with wine is on the west side of the space; the 25-seat coffee shop is on the east side. “I have friends in Alcoholics Anonymous,” explains Clayton, “and I wanted to make sure there is nothing from the pastry case forward that said anything about alcohol.”
The wine shop carries about 800 wine labels, all from small family wineries. Clayton handles the wine section but works wherever he is needed. He has seven employees including his sister Lisa, who bakes for him.
“As much as I love wine, it is one-dimensional. [In the coffee shop] there are people of all ages; there are kids and moms and dads and dogs. There’s all this beautiful human energy in that space all day long. It’s a safe place. We all need places like that. ”
Clayton’s life is far from one-dimensional. He still finds peaceful moments with his teacher, Pren Rawat. He is involved with Marcela’s nonprofit, Food4Farmers.org, which addresses the issues of food insecurity for coffee farmers.
In his free time, Clayton loves to kayak and walk with his dog, Leo. He wants to do more with his music and still plays bluegrass with longtime buddies Nick Cowles and Peter Swift of the Meat Packers.
“People talk with Kevin and instantly they feel like his friend,” says Swift. “He has a great shop. People want to interact with Kevin and have him select their wine. When he worked at the grocery store, my kids liked going there just so they could run in and give Kevin a hug. Kevin gives some of the best hugs in Vermont.”
Village Wine and Coffee is a sturdy, straightforward building with a layered and colorful interior, just like Clayton. “You have to find peace within yourself first,” he says. “And I am lousy at practicing it. Everything takes effort, even to be quiet and still. But it’s important to be a little more at peace with ourselves. That allows us to have the compassion we need to embrace the world around us.”