Brett and Ethel Harrison taught themselves to be cheesemongers and learned their lesson well.
They’ve successfully paired cheddar, bleu, Gouda and many other sharp, creamy, and smoky varieties from around the world with a homegrown menu of food and merchandise, making their Village Cheese Shop and Bistro a go-to in the heart of Haddon Heights since 1997.
Alas, the couple — who have been deeply involved in the borough business association and other civic endeavors — are selling their Station Avenue building. Village Cheese will go out of business at the end of March, a decision Brett and Ethel said has less to do with competition, or the struggles of bricks-and-mortar retailing, than with the fact that they got a great offer for their property, and want to retire.
The news hit social media in late February and customers have been lamenting, reminiscing, and sometimes using all caps for emphasis (as in “BEST” to describe Ethel’s locally renowned chocolate chip cookies, for example).
“We want to say thank you to everyone who’s walked through the door. Many have become our friends,” said Brett, 65.
“And we want to thank everyone who’s worked with us. We were blessed to be able to help a number of young people out over the years,” said Ethel, who is 64.
Married for 42 years — they met at a Haddonfield United Methodist Church choir Christmas party — and co-workers for much of that time, Brett and Ethel often finish each other’s sentences. They are the parents of two grown daughters, both of whom have their own careers, and live in Haddonfield, in the house where Brett grew up.
His family has deep, Colonial-era roots in South Jersey, and she hails from suburban Chicago. After they married the two worked at his family’s Haddonfield gift store; they decided to buy the nearby Village Cheese Shop in 1987, when they were in their early 30s.
“When we purchased the business, we [retained] the vendors,” Ethel said. “We learned about cheese from what was already there, and from being there. Being a cheesemonger is a physical thing and a mental thing you learn by doing."
Said Brett: “We read books. But mostly we learned by osmosis.”
A decade and a steep rent hike later, they moved the business to Haddon Heights, where Village Cheese has been among the contingent of locally owned establishments that give the borough’s commercial center its distinctive personality: cozy and unpretentious, with a dash of sophistication.
“We’re very in tune with Haddon Heights,” said Ethel.
I live in town and stop by Village Cheese often for a takeout ham-and-cheese croissant (or turkey with brie and chutney), usually with a side of macaroni salad and the latest dish about what’s going on along the avenue.
“We could write several books,” Brett said.
“But we know how to keep a confidence,” Ethel said.
Donna Gottardi opened her gift and home goods store My Fair Trade Lady on Station Avenue in 2013.
“I was amazed at how much camaraderie there was among the merchants, and Brett and Ethel were among the first people who made me feel welcome,” she said. "We’re tighter as a community of merchants than other small towns in the area. We really know and look out for each other, and I really love that.”
The architect Margaret Westfield, a longtime customer who lives nearby, called Village Cheese "my favorite place to take people to lunch” and is particularly fond of the creative quiches.
“The whole nature of their store and restaurant was unique, ” Westfield said. “While you were waiting for your food, you could shop in a gift store that was very eclectic and had things nobody else has.”
Said Alan Ippolito, a civil engineer who lives in Blackwood and was visiting the store while I was there Saturday: “I’ve been coming here for the last 18 years. I come here for the food, the people, the cheese, everything.”
Since they’ve been in business, Brett and Ethel have witnessed the rise of BYOBs, microbreweries, and the availability of local wines, even in formerly dry towns such as Haddonfield and Haddon Heights. They’re observed the farmers’ markets and high-end supermarkets and locavore/foodie phenomena with equanimity.
“The supermarket is good in its place," Ethel said. "But when you come to us for the tasting, the cutting, the conversation ... you’re not going to the supermarket.”
She and her husband said now is the time to take a break and do something else: Brett wants to become a master gardener, and Ethel, a painter, wants to pick up the brush more regularly.
“When someone would come in and buy a gift item, and say, ‘This is my anniversary,’ or tell us what they were going to serve for an occasion we were catering, you feel like you were sharing in their special events,” she said. “We’re going to miss that.”