by Nat Frothingham
BARRE — Several days ago, I sat down with Carl Hammond at Darwin’s Sew and Vac, a one-man shop that sells and repairs sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. Hammond spoke about how people today buy, use and very often discard a vacuum cleaner that has stopped working only to repeat the cycle in a few years.
As our conversation continued, Hammond recounted the unusual story of how, just a little over three years ago, a conversation he and Darwin Ransom had, turned into, “how would you like to buy a business?” With a look at five years of financials, Hammond knew that Darwin was not making a lot of money, “but his cash flow was positive.” So, Hammond bought the business. Just six weeks after the sale, Darwin died at the age of 82.
As the new owner, Hammond might have changed the business name. But Hammond retained the name that has served the Barre and central Vermont area for over 50 years.
So Hammond still calls the shop Darwin’s but in the last six months has had to move it. “The old shop had just 500 square feet and no parking to speak of.” Hammond’s new space at 379 South Barre Road in South Barre has ample parking with street level access. “Fabulous,” Hammond says in a word describing the new space. When he moved in, people stopped in just to say welcome to the neighborhood.
As Hammond talked, I didn’t even have to ask him if the business was making money or struggling when the phone rang and it went to the answering machine. As we continued the phone rang again and again to the machine and then the door opened with a drop off vacuum to be fixed. A moment later, through the door came a woman and daughter with a family heirloom sewing machine that wasn’t working right. The machine was purchased in 1979 and said her daughter, “This was her first major investment.”
Before Darwin’s, Hammond was a service manager working on commercial and industrial machines. His territory was all of Vermont and covered most of New Hampshire. He says that although he liked the work, he was driving between 700 to 800 miles a week. “Driving on the highways isn’t what it used to be. Too many distracted drivers today.”
Buying Darwin’s and leaving a very good paying job was certainly risky he said. After three years, however, he said the move was the right one.
Talking a few days ago, as he took stock of things at Darwin’s, Hammond described the business as solid. He reckons that the shop services an area bounded on the north by Stowe to the south by Bethel to the west by the Mad River Valley and the east by Bradford and neighboring Connecticut River communities.
On most Mondays and Tuesdays, Hammond is repairing machines. The doors are open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. Like Darwin before him, he sells “a boatload of vacuum bags for machine we don’t even sell” but adds small vac and sew shops have historically been a resource for their communities and he is glad to be continuing the service.