Rough economy and winter tests Tisbury business community
Photo by Janet Hefler
In nature, spring triggers new growth and also reveals what didn't survive the winter. The same holds true for Vineyard Haven businesses, where changes in the mix of old, new, and in-between, especially on Main Street, will be evident over the next few months.
In recent conversations with The Times, several retail and restaurant owners said the dismal economy made this winter's seasonal slump one of the worst yet. For some, it was the breaking point.
Despite continuing economic woes at the start of 2011, however, longtime business owners remain hopeful for a good summer season, and new ones have emerged with fresh enthusiasm to occupy some of the vacant storefronts.
"The economy is starting to come back slowly," Bunch of Grapes owner and Tisbury Business Association president Dawn Braasch said this week. "I feel very positive about spring and summer. It was a very slow winter, as everybody knows, and I won't say that it's been easy, but I'm hearing that the Steamship's bookings are high, and room bookings are up, and that all makes me feel positive."
A bittersweet ending
For the owners of two shops that will close this week, any improvements in the economy that come will be too late.
Today is the last day of business for M.V. Heart Boutique, tucked behind Leslie's pharmacy off Union Street. Owner Rob'n Mussell relocated her shop from a small space on Main Street to the larger Union Street store last July, where she sold her own M.V. heart jewelry line, junior and women's clothing, and intimate apparel.
Shibori, a shop that features original tie-dyed apparel created by owner Margot Parrot, will be open Friday and Saturday for final merchandise sales and on Sunday to sell the fixtures.
Ms. Parrot relocated her shop to Vineyard Haven two years ago, after a year in Oak Bluffs. Unfortunately, she began her retail operation at the beginning of the recession, and over the past three years her store profits declined each year.
Ms. Parrot said poor sales last August and November, which are benchmark months in the Island's seasonal economy, led to her decision after Thanksgiving to close her store this spring.
In analyzing what didn't work for her business, Ms. Parrot said she realized that one of the major factors is that Island visitors, especially short-term ones, have no interest in buying something made on Martha's Vineyard.
"All they want is something that has Martha's Vineyard emblazoned across the chest, and hopefully is inexpensive," she said.
Since each piece of clothing Ms. Parrot creates is original artwork, she said her biggest problem is that art, in general, does not sell in the current economy. And although her Island customers were very supportive of her business, many of them cut back on their purchases because of the recession.
Ms. Parrot, who is an attorney, said she doesn't regret her experience and looks forward to doing estate planning for clients of Attorney Erik Hammarlund. Her tie-dyed creations will still be available for purchase through her website, shiborimv.com.
Ms. Mussell said she also had few shoppers in her store from Thanksgiving through Christmas, and also over Valentine's Day. Yet her lingerie parties and sales of intimate gift baskets remained successful.
"The store part, even though my landlord is awesome and my rent is very reasonable, when you add your insurance, your overhead, and everything else, from February through March it would have cost me about $8,000 just to stay in business, not including the summer inventory," she said. "I just didn't want to dig myself into a hole or take out a loan and worry about next winter."
Instead, Ms. Mussell plans to continue to book lingerie parties and sell intimate gift baskets online at mvheartlingerie.org.
"I know in talking to some friends who work at package stores, their business is down; bank tellers, their transactions are down," she said. "I think it's everywhere. If I thought it was just me, I'd feel crushed that I wasn't able to make it."
Several businesses tightened their belts with extended seasonal closures or cut back more than usual on staff and winter hours.
Although the Two Susans on Main Street stayed open full-time last winter, co-owner Susan Leland said she cut back to weekends only after business was slower than usual in January and February.
"I wanted to stay open full-time for people on the Island, but there was not enough traffic in the store to make it worthwhile to keep the heat and the lights on," she said. "We'll be open again full-time April 1. I'm planning on a good season this year, and hopefully next winter we'll be able to stay open full-time."
Comings and goings
Ms. Parrot and Ms. Mussell both praised Ms. Leland's husband Les as a fair and compassionate landlord. Mr. Leland said although the economy resulted in quite a turnover in tenants over the past couple of years, he won't have any vacancies this summer.
He already leased the Shibori space to Kerry Quinlan Potter, who plans to open a women's shoe store there. The M.V. Heart Boutique space is rented to Debbie Alpert for a furniture and housewares consignment shop.
Mr. Leland said a new organic juice and smoothie bar, Blissed-Out, is going into the former Vineyard Gourmet location on Main Street. Jennifer Oliver and Fred Natusch, who are also the proprietors of the gift shop Imagine off Union Street, plan to open in early May.
The new Vineyard Pizza Place opened on March 1 on Beach Street and serves up pizzas, salads, grinders, and wraps.
Although the novelty tee-shirt shop Trader Jack's also closed on Main Street, Night Heron Gallery opens in its place on April 1 and will feature works by 10 Island artists. Mocha Mott's co-owner Tim Dobel said the space next door, formerly occupied by a tattoo shop, has been remodeled into a day spa he leased to Rosette Sullivan. She plans to open her business, Polished, in mid-May and offer manicures, pedicures, massages, and body treatments.
Stores that closed over the winter include Jabas Gallery on Main Street and the Kids' Consignment Store at Center Street and Main.
Persian Tribal Rugs Gallery on Beach Road has a tentative closing date of April 10.
New eateries in the works
Ben Hall Jr. and his family own several of Main Street's vacant properties, including the former Bowl and Board and Che's Lounge locations.
Mr. Hall said in a phone conversation Tuesday he is excited that Tisbury has approved a zoning permit for a 48-seat restaurant in the former Che's Lounge site. However, details remain to work out with the applicant before a business deal is finalized, he added.
"Nothing is certain at this point, but the town is going to work with us, and that's a very positive sign," Mr. Hall said.
The Bowl and Board property also has raised interest as a potential restaurant site. "Some people were interested in applying last fall, but sewer-flow allotment questions weren't resolved politically until November and December," Mr. Hall said. "We're hoping to get interested applicants to the next step, and the town has been gracious enough to work with us on sewer-flow applications for that project. We'd love to see that happen, because it would be a tremendous anchor for Main Street."
Mr. Hall said there has been "a modest amount of interest and inquiries" about the rest of the family's vacant properties, but nothing firmed up yet.
After a long series of stops and starts, construction resumed at the site of the former Café Moxie. A fire destroyed the café on July 4, 2008 and badly damaged the Bunch of Grapes bookstore next door. Although the bookstore was rebuilt in a year, a lengthy insurance claims process, town limitations on the construction schedule, and issues with NSTAR delayed work at the café site.
Property owner and builder Mike Ryan, who also owns Island Woodworks, said the project has made good progress. As for a tentative opening date, he said, "Right now there is no real plan, but our overall goal is to keep working as fast as possible and to open it as soon as is feasibly possible."
Main Street mainstays such as Bunch of Grapes and Mansion House Inn adapt to the changing business climate with the addition of new products and services.
After a two-week hiatus, the Mansion House Inn's Zephrus Restaurant reopened last week with a more casual décor and a new menu that includes a variety of burgers.
"We're still the same wonderful restaurant that we've been for awhile, but what we're trying to do is give Zephrus more of a Vineyard beat," Mansion House and Zephrus co-owner Susan Goldstein said, adding that her son Josh provided the inspiration and menu suggestions.
The Mansion House also will offer "cupola catering," a new service that features small dinner parties for 8 to 21 guests on the rooftop overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor, from June through September.
At Bunch of Grapes, Ms. Braasch said she is wrestling with the electronic book (eBook) dilemma.
"EBooks are potentially the thing that could put me out of business, but yet I need to offer a book in whatever format my customer wants," she said. "So how do you do that in a way that ensures you're here 10 years from now? I don't have a good answer for that."
"I think we have a loyal readership, but having said that, people are coming here on vacation, and the benefit of an e-reader is you don't have the weight of the books in your suitcase," Ms. Braasch added. "So I understand both sides of it."
In the meantime, as TBA president, she said she hopes to get a strong buy-local campaign going.
"I think we need to educate people about why it's better to buy local, even if it costs a little bit more," Ms. Braasch said. "We do it for produce and for buying from local farms, but I don't know that we do it for our businesses."