With a bank, an inn, three dine-in restaurants, a convenience store, a bookstore, a coffee shop, a gas station and a post office, calling the strip of Middle Path between Wiggin Street and Brooklyn Street “downtown Gambier” has become an affectionate joke among students. However, over the last century, Gambier has hosted quite a few thriving establishments, even as the widespread profitability of small businesses like those in Gambier has faded over time.
“The beginning of the slow deaths of lots of small towns’ commercial areas really began with the car, being able to drive a few miles and find a better selection and better prices,” said College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73.
Before cars were widely available, small towns were relatively self-sufficient by necessity. By the dawn of the 20th century, Gambier businesses catered to the College’s few hundred students as well as the greater community. The town’s businesses offered variety; Gambier villagers and students could buy hardware from Wright’s General Store, shoes from L.H. Jacob’s Shoe Store, tailoring services from G.L. Singer and Son, fresh-baked goods from Adrian Stoyle’s Bakery (rumored to sell liquor) or Harry Stoyle’s Bakery and get a haircut from William Hunter’s Barbershop. Beyond the necessities, Gambier housed an ice cream parlor, a billiards lounge and a soda fountain that amused students and locals, according to a resource compiled by Stamp.
Over the next few decades, Gambier’s business district was often in flux. Fleeting experiments periodically sprung up when there was space, including a student-run photography gallery and a student-run cooperative bookstore. Some local businessmen ran establishments that stood for decades, like Jim Hayes, who built the Village Inn in 1947 as well as Hayes Grocery — later renamed the Village Market, according to Stamp.
College purchases of property within downtown Gambier have further entwined Kenyon and the Village. The College has periodically bought and sold property in the “downtown” area to accommodate the needs of an expanding student population. In the early 70s, the burgeoning Department of Studio Art briefly occupied what is now the Office of Alumni and Parent Engagement; other College facilities in the downtown area included the original Black Box Theater and, at one point, the College’s financial office, according to Stamp.
Commercial spaces and restaurants allowed Gambier residents and students to interact more organically, Stamp said. After opening in 1937, Hayes Grocery was one such space. In the fully functional grocery store, originally housed in what is now Wiggin Street Coffee, students and villagers alike perused the fresh produce and meat, which was cut by an in-house butcher. “He was ready to hand you a recipe for whatever cut of meat you just got from him,” Stamp recalled.
A short walk east on Wiggin Street would take you to Dorothy’s Lunch (known in its early years as Gene’s and Dorothy Dean’s in honor of the owner’s late husband), a bar that operated from the 1940s to the early 1970s and served as another mixing spot for students and a “loyal, local clientele,” according to Stamp.
Kenyon constructed Farr Hall, an expansive building that spanned the block between Brooklyn Street and Scott Lane, in 1966, significantly altering Village life by displacing several long standing businesses while simultaneously adding new ones. A pizza shop, the Village Market, a laundromat, a beauty shop, the Bookstore and living spaces for Kenyon seniors occupied the new construction.
Economists find that large, “big box” stores have a comparative advantage over specialized small businesses and can typically offer lower prices, reducing the demand for local businesses. Businesses operating in Gambier today have not been immune to that squeeze. Campus Auto and the Village Inn have closed for periods over the past two decades; additionally, the building that now houses Wiggin Street Coffee has had several owners in the same period.
The closure of Campus Auto in 2007 prompted the College and Township to create a sustainability committee that investigated how businesses in Gambier can meet the needs of present and future residents. Chilito’s Fresh Mex is the first benefactor from Kenyon’s 2018 demolition of Farr Hall, intended to resurrect an older version of the Village’s spirit, according to Stamp. The College is currently using some of the buildings constructed on that site, 112 and 110 Gaskin Avenue, as temporary classrooms, but they are intended to house new businesses following the completion of Chalmers Library. Whatever new atmosphere will result from these developments remains to be seen.