John and Sharon Kelly opened the Secret Garden on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs in time for Memorial Day weekend in 1981. Over the past 34 years, the couple has collected almost as many memories as they have sold items at their beloved gift shop. Today, the business is for sale, and the owners are looking forward to their next chapter. Sharon recently shared stories from their experience with The Times.
What’s your background?
I was a buyer and merchandise manager for a Connecticut department store for 10 years — buying sportswear, dresses, coats, and accessories.
How did you end up on the Island?
I became a pilot in 1977, and we flew to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time, just for the weekend. We bought our house that very same weekend! All I can say is that we were struck by lightning. If you’ve ever fallen in love at first sight, you know what we mean.
What inspired you to open the store?
It was 1979 or 1980, and I needed to have a gift for someone when I returned to Connecticut. I walked downtown into Oak Bluffs and looked in every store. The choices were either something from the hardware store, the office supply store, or something from a T-shirt store.That was about it. So I decided this town needed a nice gift shop, and I knew that I could do something about that.
Did you own any other businesses previously?
No, this was our first. When we opened, I did not run the store. After it had become obvious that it was going to be successful, I left my other employment after the 1982 season and made the Vineyard my residence. In 1989, I opened another store in Connecticut (our families are all still there), and I went back and forth every week (having my own plane really helped a lot!). Flash-forward to the present day: Because my husband was ready to retire and spend all of his summers on the Vineyard, I didn’t want to be caught having to go back and forth all the time, so I sold the Connecticut store in 2012 to the woman who had been managing it for 15 years.
Why are you preparing to sell the Secret Garden now?
I want to retire by the time I’m 70. I’ll be 68 in January. So, at the end of the summer, I did list the real estate for sale. I have my reservations about selling the business. I already did that in Connecticut, and that store is going strong, but the new owner had 15 years of on-the-job training. I don’t want a newbie to buy it and fail. Or maybe there is someone who has a great idea for their own new business. I’m kind of selective about what I’d like to see in that spot on Circuit Avenue. I don’t want to sell to someone who might open a fast food restaurant or another T-shirt store. It’s an A-1 location on the upper end of Circuit Avenue, and over the years, a lot of great stores have moved into the neighborhood.
What do you envision for the future of the store?
I would really like to see it remain a gift shop; we have so many loyal customers who have been lamenting my plans to retire. Some come in and say, “You can’t do it! I won’t let you!” It has been an amazingly long time to be in business. I’ve had great big, tall men, over 30 years old, tell me their mothers brought them here to buy Beanie Babies when they were little. We have been a part of people’s lives for so long; we see a lot of the same faces year after year, who come in and tell us they “always” come here to shop when they visit Martha’s Vineyard. So in some ways, it is gratifying to know we will be missed as much as we will miss our customers. But at the same time I recognize that unless a person plans on doing the same thing forever, there comes a time when one must change course. My husband and I are still healthy and active. This February we are off on a hiking trip in New Zealand, and there are still other parts of the world we want to become acquainted with, one step at a time. And let’s face it, good health doesn’t last forever, so we need to make the most of it while we can. I also want to make the most out of my flying opportunities, without having work dictate the schedule. So, as much as I like the store, there are other things that just won’t wait.
What has been the most rewarding part of owning the business?
A great, fun part is meeting new people every day. In the morning, you might meet someone from Oklahoma and in the afternoon someone from Germany. I love the serendipity of it.
On and off during my life, I have tried to learn to speak Italian, and whenever I pick up the sound of an Italian conversation going on in the store, I try to get a little closer. About three years ago, on a very rainy July day, there was a young couple comparing some of our handbags; I went over to help. They were on their honeymoon and had come to the States for a week, and “always wanted to see Martha’s Vineyard,” but were only here for the day. After they made their purchase they asked for advice on where to go for lunch. They wanted to see Edgartown but needed to get ready for a flight home to Rome the next day. I just knew the restaurants would be packed, so I invited them to come home with me for lunch. I explained we had been to Italy several times (I have Italian heritage), and my husband would be there to have lunch with us. They were a little hesitant but decided to take a chance on me. It was amazing. I have one hallway of family photos, and the groom recognized the name of the portrait studio on a picture of my grandfather in uniform (he also knew the rank of the uniform, captain). The photo was taken of my grandfather when he was a young man in Macerata, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Well, the bride was from Rome, but the groom grew up about five miles from where my grandfather lived! A little wine and a lot of conversation later, I drove them to Edgartown and have corresponded since. It fills me with sadness to think I’ll be giving up these serendipitous opportunities. But maybe we will have a chance to be on the receiving end on some of our travels.
How has the business evolved over the years?
In the beginning we had a lot of Asian-inspired merchandise. I remember stocking huge numbers of lanterns that were scooped up by owners of houses in the Campgrounds. I had traveled to Hong Kong and Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Thailand as part of my other job, and I had become enamored of all things Asian. I got a little carried away, and stocked a lot of screens, silks, and pottery with that distinctive look. I learned pretty quickly to be more selective and to not stock so much of what appealed to me and more of what the customers wanted. The customers of today want as much Vineyard-specific merchandise as possible. And they want it to be made in America.
What have been some of your most popular items?
I don’t think I’ll ever see anything as popular as Beanie Babies were back in the day. Customers used to follow the UPS truck around the Island and see where the distinctively marked cartons were delivered, then they would stampede. It was a true phenomenon.
What are some of the best memories you’ve made over the years?
Back in the ’80s, there was a little red-headed girl, about eight years old, who used to come to the store every day during the summer, but never spoke to us. One day her mother came in and apologized, saying she would just disappear from her grandmother’s house, and they never knew where she was going. I said she always behaved perfectly and was welcome to come to the store as much as she wanted. After that, she started talking to us. She would point out when something had been moved or was in the wrong place. She noticed everything new.
She was only on the Island for summer vacations, but when she was here, she was in our store, and she let us know that when she was old enough, she was going to work here. Well, sure enough when she turned 16, we hired her. After her grandmother passed away, she no longer came to the Island. She went on to study at the Boston Museum School, and we later learned that she was living in Hong Kong. After that, we lost track of her, but her mother came to visit the Island again just this past summer. She told us she is now married with a child and living in England and working toward an advanced degree to become a museum curator.
How perfect! I love stories that are a long time in the making. So my fondest hope is that a new owner will come along and create some longtime stories of their own.
The Secret Garden, 41 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs. 508-693-4759, secretgardenmv.com.