By Phyl Newbeck, Contributor
Sarah Ramsdell Beal enjoys working beside her mother Sharon Beal as partners and co-owners of The Common Deer store in Burlington. “It’s not always sunshine and roses,” she said, “but it’s one of the best partnerships you could have.”
Beal’s journey to retail wasn’t a straight line. “I graduated from college in 2008, which wasn’t the best economy,” she recalls. “I got an internship with Magic Hat and a job with the Shelburne Fieldhouse.” Beal had plans to head out west, but she was enjoying her work, so the Charlotte Central School and Champlain Valley Union High School graduate stayed in Vermont.
“I became executive director of the Fieldhouse at a young age,” she said, “and I was making big decisions for a 21-year-old.” Beal left the Fieldhouse for a job as Director of Marketing, Tourism, and Communications for the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. “There were a lot of things I loved about the job,” she said, but a mountain bike accident led her to reconsider her priorities.
Beal and her mother founded The Common Deer in 2013, but for several years, she worked remotely from Wyoming where she was also employed as a free-skiing coach and river guide, jobs that required her to become certified in wilderness first aid and swift water rescue. Beal also served as a mountain host in Jackson Hole and helped small businesses with their websites on the side. In 2016, she returned to Vermont to work full time at the store. “I wasn’t planning on moving back as quickly as I did,” she said, “but what Vermont has to offer, including our small-business community and focus on entrepreneurship, is pretty neat.”
Beal describes her partnership with her mother as a well-oiled machine. “The simplified way of looking at it,” she said “is that I get the bodies in the store and she gets the product in the store. We balance each other out.” Beal lauds her mother for having a good eye for products, something she believes she lacks. However, she is able to use her expertise for other aspects of business development, including technology and marketing.
Not surprisingly, the store has been impacted by the pandemic. “We closed our doors before we were told to,” Beal said. “We’re a pretty big tourist destination so we didn’t feel we or our staff were safe.” They moved the inventory they thought would sell to Beal’s parents’ house to create a mini-storefront, minus the in-person customers. Beal’s father chipped in to help as the family shipped wholesale orders directly to the house and sent out retail orders from there. In mid-August, the family reopened their Burlington storefront by appointment only. “We’re very strict,” Beal said. “Customers have to pass a screening test and provide contact information. People on our staff are in the at-risk category so we made an executive decision to do it this way. It’s not a financially sound model but it’s working out.”
Beal lives with her partner, Dave Kenyon, on the grounds of the Nitty Gritty Grain Company. “I help out when needed,” she said “but the amount of work I do pales in comparison to Dave and Tom.” Beal has learned to drive the tractors and provides assistance with the website and packaging. In her spare time she dabbles in a variety of artistic media, including pottery and painting. “Crafts and art are a big part of my life now,” she said.
Beal said her career has always been focused on helping small businesses survive and grow. Her parents ran Vermont Business Brokers. “I’ve always known small business stories,” she said “and I’ve always known entrepreneurs.” Beal uses her knowledge to help others as a volunteer member of the Church Street Marketplace Commission. “They’re making big decisions for downtown, and that has become even more relevant,” she said.
Free skiing and river rafting are adrenaline sports, and Beal sees a parallel between them and working retail. “Whenever someone asks whether they should start a retail store I ask them if they like to gamble,” she said. “Every item you buy is a gamble and it’s gotten scarier.” Beal noted that the adrenaline runs particularly high during the holidays. “We have a month and half of 15- to 16-hour days before the holidays,” she said. “Last year, my dad had to work the door to make sure the lines went smoothly and people were able to get into the store. We were really tired, but the adrenaline keeps you going and you get into a flow state.”