ST. ALBANS — When Nancy Hudak passed in December of last year, she left her St. Albans store, Rail City Market, to two of her long-time friends. 

Ashley and Matt Cleare, a media advertising salesperson and an accountant respectively, were surprised by the inheritance, but Ashley says, in light of her bond with Hudak, the whole thing sort of made sense. 

Cleare started working for Hudak when she was a student at Bellows Free Academy – St. Albans, and continued through her years at Champlain College.

“I never once thought, ‘some day, this store will be mine,’” said Cleare.

Still, armed with a business degree, Cleare and her husband always talked about what kind of business they might some day own. Hudak’s will settled that question.

Cleare, until May 9, had one foot in her new store, and the other at her job at Seven Days in Burlington. Now she’s full-time at Rail City. 

She admits that the reality of actually owning the store was a surprise, but that her years spent working there gave her a familiarity with many of the vendors.

“Now that I’m here full-time, I can really focus on the store,” she said.

Cleare laughs when she tells stories of people discovering the store and asking when she opened.

“We’ve been here for more than 30 years,” said Cleare.

For the uninitiated, Rail City Market is a specialty grocery, bulk foods, and vitamin supplement shop that would sit comfortable on any street corner in Berkley or Venice Beach, Calif. Here shoppers can find everything from Israeli couscous to bamboo rice to organic banana chips. Toss some tea tree oil in the basket and pick up some organic tick repellent while you’re there. Spices, too. Shoppers come in with their own jars and fill them from the store’s wide selection of seasonings.

“They can get a refill for under a dollar, most of the time,” said Cleare.

Also, there are wood-turned bowls made by a medical doctor-turned-transcendental meditation instructor.

Shoppers will also find staples, including locally sourced eggs, milk and cheeses,  two freezers filled with local meats, and fruit. The store also carries a collection of made in Vermont artisan foods, crafts and art.

Cleare is making a few changes. She’s planning events to correspond with the Northwest Farmers Market, including cookie decorating for the kids. 

But maybe the most significant change will be the Tea Talks, which Cleare and store employee Janice Decooman say is a nod to the popular TED Talks, only smaller, and with tea. The first such talk, set for July 20, will feature Alison Morse from the Vermont Ayurvedic Center in Williston. Ayurveda is a traditional Indian holistic medicine practice. Decooman said she discovered Ayurveda when recovering from cancer treatments and after she was involved in a car crash.  She’s the store’s chief advocate for the practice. Getting Morse to come out, she said, is exciting.

“We’re very honored that she will be here,” said Decooman.

Back on the business side, Cleare feels fortunate that her husband is an accountant. 

Of course, his contribution to their newfound venture is keeping the books, but he’s discovering things as well, said Ashley. When she brought home some kimchi from Flack Family Farms, she said he put it on his eggs and declared, “This is now a staple.”

Discovering new foods is certainly a part of the Cleare’s new venture. She’s also learning about customers’ interests from their questions, and, on many occasions, she’ll make a special order for a customer.

“We’re a small store, so we don’t always have the shelf space,” she said. “But we pre order for people all the time.”

Beyond the groceries, Rail City also stocks sustainable cleaning products, body care products, and a host of surprises from local artists.  Cleare admits that since December she’s managed to discover a number of products she didn’t know the store had, and notes a strange twist in the fact Nancy is no longer around.

“It’s been unusual in that I don’t have anyone to ask,” she said. “I had to realize that I couldn’t just say, ‘Hey, Nancy, where’s this or how do we do that?’”

Cleare said much of the process has been her digging through old records to find vendor names or product lists and prices. She cites a particular time when a customer wanted elderberry syrup, but the store was out of it. Cleare said it really bothered her that she could not find the vendor’s name, but her husband Matt came through when he scoured old receipts and found the vendor’s name. 

While the store is Cleare’s now, Nancy’s influence remains.

“She was just a really amazing woman,” Cleare said. “We would go out to dinner or go have lunch, even after I left. Working for a strong woman like Nancy was really a great experience for me.”

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