Britain's vote has far-reaching effects

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Penelope Wilner is seen in her Brattleboro shop, Penelope Wurr. Wilner, a Brit, is unhappy with her native country’s recent vote to withdraw from the European Union. Many of the items for sale in her store come from Britain.

BRATTLEBORO — Penelope J. Wilner has cornered something of a niche market on Brattleboro’s Main Street.

Her store, Penelope Wurr, specializes in a range of British paraphernalia, from hats to a Union Jack pillow to Anglified birthday cards. Wilner, an Englishwoman, started the store in part out of a sense of connection to her home country.

It’s a relationship that’s been tested recently.

On Thursday, Wilner watched in shock as 52 percent of her countrymen voted to formally withdraw from the European Union, abruptly deciding to remove the United Kingdom from a political and economic partnership dating back 43 years. On Saturday, her store was closed for business. A notice on the front door read wryly: “In mourning.”

The UK’s referendum decision to pull out, colloquially known as “Brexit,” has already upended markets and sent politicians of all stripes scrambling. Hailed by proponents as a long-needed divorce from burdensome and undemocratic European bureaucracy, it has been equally loudly denounced by detractors and world leaders who see it a dangerous move toward isolationism by one of the world’s largest economies.

But for Brits who have left their native land and set down roots in New England, the decision has hit home in other, more personal ways.

For Wilner, Thursday’s vote was a sound of alarm.

“I’m sitting there and I’m going ‘Oh my god,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘What the hell is happening?’ ”

Wilner, a glass artist and print maker, came over to New York to explore her craft. She met Michael, then a commodities trader, and got married in a year. Now living in Putney, Vt., she uses her storefront as an outlet for her work.

Like many, Wilner was taken by surprise by a result that had eluded the predictions of polls, betting markets and analysts, all of whom had given the edge to the “Remain” camp in the final days of campaigning. As a proud Brit and proponent of integration, Wilner found the outcome more than disheartening.

But as a businesswoman trading primarily in British goods, and dealing with around 20 different companies, Wilner saw a potential opportunity. With the pound sterling hitting a 31-year low against the U.S. dollar, plunging more than 10 percent, British products bought in dollars would be cheaper, driving a natural boost to sales revenue.

Or at least they should have been. She quickly discovered that her suppliers were not as flexible as the exchange rate. The prices given to her have remained the same, the manufacturers presumably reaping the benefit themselves.

“I should be benefiting from the low pound,” she said. “But because the majority of the products already have a dollar rate, I’m not really benefiting from it, and at the moment the companies are benefiting from our high dollar.

“It’s like a double insult,” she added.

Speaking on the wisdom of Brexit, Wilner doesn’t mince words. “It was a disaster,” she said. But she retains a strong sense of optimism about the months ahead. Britain will wake up and find a way to fix this, she said. Its people are too smart, and its relationship with Europe too important to not do so.

Others were less charitable.

Just down the road in Brattleboro, Peter Solley doesn’t see much to be hopeful about.

“I was shocked. Absolutely shocked,” he said of the decision. “I’m ashamed to call myself English.

“I see no positive future for the United Kingdom,” he added.

Solley, a former Londoner and musician, left a glittering career as a music producer in London and Miami and headed up north seven years ago to start a café in Vermont. A Grammy-nominated producer who once worked with the likes of Ted Nugent and Peter Frampton, Solley now runs a gelato company out of Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro.

Speaking on the decision by his compatriots, Solley bordered on the apoplectic.

“They’ve taken something that created the longest lasting peace since World War II and just thrown it away,” he said. “It was a campaign of half-truths.”

Now several thousand miles and about 40 years removed from his former UK life, Solley said he could only sit back and watch as his country made what he regarded as a grave mistake.

“I felt helpless, sitting here and watching it,” he said. “What can you do at that point?”

For Solley, the European Union was a natural unifier, a beacon of progress for European democracy. “They provided science research funds, farming subsidies, they abolished the death penalty — all the elements you want in a modern society was what the EU was,” he said.

Alan C. Feinson, another expatriate turned Brattleboro resident, said the decision came as a jolt.

“It’s just awful,” he said. “I just didn’t think people in Britain were that stupid.”

Feinson, who once spent his days in Brighton, England, trawling through hard drives as a computer crime investigator, married his American wife, Pat, and moved to Brattleboro several years ago. They now run The One Cat B&B on Clark Street.

Feinson hasn’t lived here long enough to consider himself a native. But he said his new American base afforded him a sense of security from the ongoing upheaval in his home country.

“I definitely feel shielded from the fallout of all this,” he said.

National identity has been something that many Brits in the area have been grappling with since the vote last Thursday. Some, like Solley, said the decision would have an effect on how he feels about his homeland.

“I’ll probably go back, and I doubt too much will change too soon,” he said. “But it will never feel the same again.”

Wilner said her life as a dual nationalist encourages appreciation for both locations.

“I definitely still feel the attachment,” she said. “I enjoy it here and I enjoy it there. And Britain is going to be OK at the end of this.”

For Anthony D. Levich, the Brexit vote comes as a full-circle moment in his life.

Levich voted in the original referendum in 1972, which initiated the UK’s involvement in what was then the European Communities, a precursor to the EU. Hailing from a family of farmers in Herefordshire, an agriculture-heavy area near Wales, Levich saw the potential benefits of a common market for trade.

Years later he married an American and started a berry farm, Monadnock Berries, in Troy. They met at a friend’s wedding in the States. He was the best man; she was a bridesmaid.

Levich said he was just as amazed as the rest of his country at the vote’s outcome.

“I was really surprised. It was obviously a protest vote,” he said, citing an unhappiness with bureaucratic structures imposed by the EU Parliament.

Levich didn’t vote last week, but he lived through a prolonged debate that saw his two brothers standing on opposite sides. One, the director of a company manufacturing transformers and power equipment for the developing world, favored a departure from the onerous burdens of EU regulations on his business. The other, a farmer, greatly appreciated the generous subsidies.

His 94-year-old mother voted to stay.

As for Levich: “I didn’t feel strongly either way.”

“It’s going to be cheaper to go back home at least,” he said, laughing.