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This NEK business closed nearly a year ago. But longtime employee Gary Ely says his heart is still inside

A person wearing a button-down t-shirt and jeans in front of a brick storefront with the banner reading caplan's above the doorway
Erica Heilman
Gary Ely worked at Caplan's Army Store for near seven decades before it closed at the end of 2020. He continues to stop by the store each day.

After 98 years in business, Caplan’s Army Store in St. Johnsbury is closed. They closed on the last day of 2020. Independent reporter Erica Heilman stopped by to talk with longtime employee Gary Ely about the store, and his many years there.

Caplan’s smelled like oil and leather. It’s where I went for mittens and gloves and socks for Christmas. It’s where everybody around here went. It’s been almost a year since it closed, but last week my friend Bess told me that Gary Ely still goes to the store every day. So I walked over and there he was, sitting right inside the door with an old transistor radio.

Gary: “Well we were open 98 years. And I started here in 1953, so it was practically new when I started.”

Erica: “So why are you here?”

Gary: “I come in here because, like I said, back on the 23rd of August, it was 68 years ago that I started here. And my heart is still in this building. I stayed home for two days after we closed, and I felt terrible. I felt depressed. And so then I said, ‘I guess I’ll come to the store,’ and I started coming to the store and I felt good. I felt like I had accomplished something. So I’ve done it ever since.

“Maybe it’s a selfish reason, but I have to satisfy my heart. And the people that you see … I mean I’ll have sometimes 20 people that stop just to say hi, and I even thought yesterday, I was sitting out front — it was a nice day — and I was sitting out front and I said, ‘You know I probably should be a politician,’ because every car that went by, people would toot or wave or something, like I was some kind of a politician.”

Erica: “Or a mayor.”

Gary: “Yeah or something. “

Erica: “I like mayor better than politician. It sounds more useful.”

"[B]ack on the 23rd of August, it was 68 years ago that I started here. And my heart is still in this building."
Gary Ely, longtime Caplan's Army Store employee

Gary gave me a tour of the store, where things used to be.

Gary touring the store: “This area right here was the counters. The cash register was here. That was in 1953. We opened the downstairs department. We had a sporting department. Tents and guns and… ammunition and sporting equipment …”

Erica: “Why did you close?”

Gary: “We closed for a couple of reasons. The store was closed for two months due to the COVID last summer. And then it was hard to get goods. You know Mr. Caplan is 88 years old, and he just figured, his dad retired at 67, and his dad hired me, but Dave Caplan decided that, you know, at 88 it was time.

“And the goods were very hard to get. Merchandise was extremely hard. We’d order three dozen pair of pants and get 20. Or 18, or whatever. The manufacturers were just feeling the squeeze. It was just I think the right time for us to do it, as sad as it is. We made a lot of people disappointed. But you gotta do it sometime. Every good thing has to come to an end sometime.”

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Erica: “What do you miss the most?”

Gary: “The people. For me, it’s just friendship. You see people that you might see three times a week or you might not see ‘em only once or twice a year. We had people come from the Cape and Long Island, people coming from every direction. Good customers. And just friends.”

Erica: “Who were the regulars?”

Gary: “There was people that came – regulars that you’d see every week for years. We cashed a lot of checks. A lot of the folks would come in and cash their checks and buy a pair of suspenders or a pair of socks or whatever. And we’d cash ‘em anyways because we knew them … local people.”

Gary touring the store: “This area was always socks, in through here. From one end to the other. In the center was another section of hosiery. We sold lots and lots of socks.”

Erica: “I bought socks every year for Christmas here.”

Gary: “Yeah well we would have people, I’ve seen people come up to the counter with $150 worth of socks at Christmastime. And then we had bib overalls, we had some on the other side of this counter. Bib overalls made in Whitefield, New Hampshire, for $3.49 a pair.”

Erica: “And who bought ‘em?”

Gary: “They was the working man. Yeah. Railroad men. People that worked at the mill. ‘Course we had Purina Mills down here. People who worked at Ides Granary, they wore bib overalls, but a lot of railroad men wore bib overalls. And frocks. And they were like $3 and change.”

A person sitting in front of store shelves with an old radio.
Erica Heilman
Gary Ely inside Caplan's with his old transistor radio.

Erica: “Your life changed radically when it closed. Does it make you see things any differently, in some way?”

Gary: “I think I have become more emotional. I have times where I might cry thinking about it, you know. I could cry pretty easy. I don’t even like to think about it. But when I start to feel like … it’s almost like the thing that I like to do the most is almost been taken away. So I try to set it aside and not think on it. I’m blessed. God has blessed me. I have a chance to share with people and encourage people.

“I just had a man in here just a few minutes ago that’s headed for a heart operation. I was able to pray with him. And just to give him some words of encouragement. So there’s things like that that help me in a time when I’m maybe discouraged for myself, but the Lord helps me to encourage somebody else. You know? Yes. So it’s been a pretty full life. If I leave today or tomorrow, I’ve had a great fulfilling life and I’m ready to go.”

Erica: “Are you scared?”

Gary: “No. Oh no. I’m not scared. I’m a man with much faith, and I’ve talked about a place called Heaven for over 50 years. If it wasn’t anything at the end of my journey, I would say, ‘Boy it’s been a great journey.’ I think there’s something there, but even if there wasn’t, it’s been a great journey. I’ve enjoyed it to the fullness.”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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