Life-long Ithacan Tom Clausen ’73 was meandering between shelves lined with apples and local maple syrup during an Orchards Store visit in January when an employee broke the news: The store was closing at the end of the month.
Clausen was shocked.
“To me, it just didn’t compute,” he said. “I always saw it as a place that was very popular, that brought a diverse range of alumni, students, their families and community members all to one spot to enjoy something that was fairly unique.”
Clausen is one of thousands of Ithaca and Cornell community members who mourned the loss of the beloved Cornell Orchards Store when it closed on Jan. 31 after reportedly “struggling financially” for years, the closing announcement said.
Shock and lament over the shuttering of the 68-year-old Ithaca institution boiled over onto social media and generated a petition that amassed more than 3,200 signatures as of Wednesday night.
But as the vacant storefront sits along Route 366 with a red “closed” sign hanging in the window, some long-time Orchards Store shoppers remain baffled by the closing and have sought answers.
The Orchards Store operated under annual deficits in the “tens of thousands of dollars” — even after a three-year parternship with Cornell Retail Services increased annual top line sales, according to a statement from Fred Piccirilli, the senior director of CRS, the organization that managed the retailer’s operations from 2017 until its closing.
Though recent promotional efforts and events such as the annual fall Apple Bake-off increased traffic and sales during the partnership, they failed to offset the store’s continued operating deficits and made closing the only viable option, according to Piccirilli.
The Orchards Store moved to year-round operations in 2017 to increase customer traffic and eliminate previous deficits. While the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and CRS considered returning to seasonal operations, Piccirilli told The Sun that a part-time model would not provide enough revenue to close the financial gap.
“Supporting a full-fledged retail venture commits significant CALS resources that could be more effectively leveraged toward mission-critical research,” Piccirilli said.
But Orchards Store regular Clausen said, if anything, he thought the store was prepared to expand — not close, adding he observed that the retailer continued to expand its product line and rearrange its shelves to accommodate a wider variety of local goods, from cheeses to books.
“I always thought the store was doing well,” he said. “It wasn’t like it was a ghost town there. There were lots of times when they had events when it was very crowded, especially during fall football games and alumni gatherings.”
In wake of the closing, community members have continued to press the administration to preserve the retailer — often to no response.
“It’s quite alarming that I emailed the [CALS] dean, assistant dean and president of the University and I didn’t get any response, especially with 3,200 signatures,” said Simon Ingall, a Cornell University Library employee who started the petition to preserve the Orchards Store.
Clausen signed the petition and wrote a letter to CALS Dean Kathryn Boor ’80, urging that the Orchard Store remain open to no reply.
Matt Hintsa ’10, a CALS alumnus and a former Sun photography editor, called the Orchards Store a defining part of his college experience, lamenting the closing of a “great public entry point” to Cornell’s agricultural research and land-grant mission to connect with, educate and improve the lives of the public.
In addition to selling cider and SnapDragons, the retailer also had community outreach programs and allowed customers to taste experimental apple varieties at the store.
Hintsa said he felt the store’s closing would make it harder for Cornell to build support around these causes that have long been integral to the University.
“I completely understand the financial reality behind the decision to close the store,” Hintsa said. “The University has to maintain its finances, but I think there’s a longer-term cost that’s harder to quantify that comes from closing the store.”
CRS and CALS said in a statement to The Sun that they are exploring options to offer some of the local products that the Orchards Store previously stocked at other retail locations, including Cafe Jennie and the main campus Cornell Store.
But for Clausen, shuttering the Orchards Store means losing the spirit that the retailer created.
“To me, the kind of gathering place and destination that it was for alumni and families just doesn’t strike me as likely to ever be as nice as it had been and to be the same kind of an experience,” Clausen said.