Our Island shops provide us with both needed essentials and luxuries, sparing us the expense and inconvenience of having to travel off-Island. Five local shopkeepers tell us about the challenges of selling to the Vineyard community, give us some tips on what it takes to make a shop successful, and preview what’s going to be hot for the summer of 2016.
The Toy Box
Tisbury Market Place
BeeBee Horowitz, owner
Why a toy store?
Well, I bought the business 29 years ago from a young woman, Deborah Darling, who had started a toy store in Edgartown called the Toy Box and expanded to this location. I was in my mid-30s, and had lived a year on Martha’s Vineyard, having moved from Manhattan in 1986. I had been an actress — lived for a couple years in Manhattan, gone to grad school, worked for a construction company … I was looking for a business to anchor me somewhere, and I saw this toy store for sale. I did not seek it out. I bought it, and It’s grown since that time. It seems to have worked out well.
Has your relationship to toys changed in 29 years?
I think I’m pretty good — it might have come from theater — I can look at a picture of a toy and imagine what it would be like to play with it for different ages. I’m probably now much more opinionated about what makes a good toy. If anything, I’m nostalgic for certain toys they have stopped making.
I think my background in theater and my love for children have been indispensable. I think that theater attracts people who are interested in the human condition and relationships and family.
What’s it like having toddlers for customers?
Toddlers don’t know what they want; it’s better that they have time [to look around]. We call ourselves “the store to explore.” We expect people to take their time in here. It’s all been very satisfying.
Is there a favorite toy for this summer?
That’s not the way I think about it; I’d much rather show somebody one of my puppets …
I tend not to have the toys tied into TV shows and movies. In the summer we sell a lot of kites, a lot of baby toys, Legos … and I love Calico Critters, they’re great little animals that have clothes that come on and off. And I think we are famous for the little things to play with, like wind-ups.
I think we are the only store that’s dedicated to just toys. There are lots of stores that sell toys on the Island … we divvy up the pie. [If we don’t have an item] we send customers to the other stores; like “Miracle on 34th Street,” with Kris Kringle: “If Macy’s doesn’t have it, go over to B. Altman’s …” We can’t have everything here.
Are your customers local people or visitors?
I’d say both. Until this week, it’s basically been year-round people -– people who know Martha’s Vineyard and are regulars on the Island. Visitors make sure they check us out each summer, sometimes as soon as they get off the boat. We have lots of little things to keep kids busy. Overall, I think we are geared more for the year-round people, but we couldn’t survive without the summer visitors.
What’s fun in your job?
It’s 99.9 percent fun — or I wouldn’t be doing it for this long. I think what I find the most pleasurable is actually playing with kids … and I think PLAY is the key. There’s been a lot of writing about how important it is. And I see the importance of the things you provide for them to play with — whether it’s a stick or a box or a ball, or 5,000 Legos. When the kids come in here, I like to look at their faces and see how they relate to this environment.
Cardboard boxes are best. Our secondary business is recycling our boxes … urging people to take them as a toy as well.
What type of employees do you hire?
I have great people working for me day to day. I have employees who have worked here for many years — all grandmas. Their expertise as grandmothers is indispensable to the way we relate to children and parents.
Do you see any changes in the future?
For the past couple years, I’ve been thinking, I’m getting older, if I’m going to do anything else, I better figure that out and have some time to figure it out. Time is pushing me to make an adjustment — to give me some time to think about what I will do instead.
Last July I posted a note on the door, saying this may be my last summer — I really want to sell the business. Someone put it online … it went buzzing around the Island … 25 different people inquired about it. It’s very hard to pass on a retail business and have it survive. For me, it’s more important to keep it going. I’m not anxious to let it go, but ready to keep it going.
Katama General Store
Jackie and Doug Korell, caterers and owners
Katama General Store
Jackie and Doug Korell, caterers and owners
What attracted you to the Katama Store?
J: When we took over the store in 2003, we really thought about the Katama community — it’s the little neighborhood store. Back then we were looking for an opportunity to sell products (we’d been catering for 13 years). We always had an interest in retail; it complements our Lobster Tales catering business. We brought in our prepared foods and specialty foods — it’s a nice synergy between the two businesses.
D. The catering part of the business has grown a lot … when people are having weddings, for instance, or a rehearsal dinner or brunch — they need some platters of food.
Why a “general store?”
D. A couple of years ago we branded our name as a beach bodega: your neighborhood store.
J. Like in the city, people tend to stay in their five- or six-block area where they live. A lot of the people who stay out here in Katama enjoy the convenience of not having to go back into town. The general store being part of the beach community, you get involved with the whole scene of summer living … the candles, the tabletop, even hostess gifts … the offerings have expanded. We bring the great products, special breads, and essentials: a nice bottle of wine, hors d’oeuvres —we offer more than just beach food.
D. Customers can pick up food for their boats for a sunset cruise.
What’s the biggest change from catering?
J. As a caterer you don’t buy it until it’s sold; you know exactly what you are getting into. With the store, you say, “This is what we offer,” and you hope you made the right choice. We spend a lot of time asking our customers, “What do you need? What do you like?” It’s learning that part of it. Fortunately, our customers have been great in letting us know what they want. And they enjoy the exploration, trying out new things.
How do you find new products?
D. We go to the food show in San Francisco every year where they introduce new products.
J. I think we strive for high quality. Our goal is to have authentic, wholesome food. We are always seeking out healthy versions — but it needs to taste good. We taste everything that we sell. Gluten-free is something we stumbled upon. We have such a selection of gluten-free, though it wasn’t my intention, but the products tasted good. I started to notice it being a trend, and now we have made a concerted effort to stock those products. That customer feedback and interplay was really important.
J. Our prepared foods; we do well with breakfast. We have to credit Penny Townes for that, she has worked for us for years. Penny used to make breakfast sandwiches for the hockey players. Back then, she brought her husband’s flat top in and showed me how to fry an egg and assemble the sandwiches. They’ve really taken off over the years. Penny is like the heart and soul of the place.
Do you have plans for the future?
J. We’ve outgrown the little red store: we have plans to build a new building. We bought the property four years ago on this site. Our plans are geared toward running the same business but in a building that’s more appropriate. We will have air conditioning and storage — all in one building.
D. We need to get the parking lot off the street and move it to the side of the building.
J. It’s re-orienting the building and adding a wrap-around porch. People come here and rest and relax; this is sort of a respite.
D. When you come in off the street the next thing will be the covered porch. Inside will be a little bigger than what we have now.
J. We have a large garden out back, but the building is really hot so it’s hard to display fresh produce. With air conditioning we can bring more local products into the store; that’s part of the future as we have more space to do more. We’re in the process of going through the approvals. The hope is to break ground in October and have it ready for next season, starting mid-May.
We’d like to open a little earlier. We’d like to employ more folks who live here — having an expanded season is more appealing for them.
Our goal of being Katama’s neighborhood store — I think we’ve achieved that. We’re more than just a stop before the beach. Last year we got our beer and wine license, and that completes the package. We have produce, baked breads, we have amazing Key lime pie, pantry staples, gourmet cheeses, great snacks — we’re pretty comprehensive.
Kara Merry, owner
How did you start at Pandora’s Box?
I’ve been the owner for 19 years; prior to buying the store, I worked three summers for the previous owner as manager. 1997 was my year, I took it over.
How have you changed the store?
This half of the store was another store called Right at the Bite. I bought that business from Julie Flanders, and took over the whole space. It now has a better flow.
The inventory has evolved as customers have evolved. My retail background was in Los Angeles, where I was selling very high-end; this is much different, although we’re not inexpensive. We carry “that special piece.”
When I buy I don’t do a lot of basic — not a lot of black solid. I’ve moved away from T shirts. You try to work with some exclusivity … it’s so hard.
Who are your customers?
The clients have changed … every year I never have enough of high-design lines.
We definitely have regular customers, I get a lot of up-Island homeowners and their guests. I don’t get a lot of day-trippers, we don’t have the tour buses. I don’t find it particularly touristy;
I am the only clothing store in town. People say, ”I knew I could come here and find it, I didn’t want to go down-Island.” I don’t have an Edgartown clientele that I am aware of.
My customers’ ages? I would say we have 12-year-olds up to grandmothers. Everybody loves a good scarf!
What is your bestseller?
If I’m known for any brand, it’s probably my Johnny Was clothing. It’s definitely one of my bestsellers. We have the most representation of the line. It’s not for everybody — most pieces have Mexican-inspired embroidery.
How do you research new lines?
I do my research in the wintertime. I go to shows in September, January, February, and May in New York. When I need to fill in gaps, I go to local shows in Marlboro. I’ve carried Urban Outfitters for 19 years, and I carry the Free People label line every year.
If you drop a line one year, you can’t pick it up again. Every year there used to be “the summer color.” That is over — there’s never a dominant color now. I have customers who much prefer pink and green; I have trouble with orange, and can never sell red. I don’t have a big purple customer. It’s all blue — blue and green — and white is huge.
How has the fashion sense changed over the years?
It’s way stronger! People are very aware of what’s going on with social media; they know their labels, the companies … they are in here on their phones checking prices.
The biggest competitors are the companies opening their own stores — that never happened before.
Name recognition is important. Years ago people didn’t know the labels as much. Sales are now label-driven: ”I want my Citizen jeans, and my Johnny Was top, and my Free People dress.”
What’s the business community like?
When I first bought the store, around the corner running the Menemsha Market was Debbie Packer from my class; Ben Deforest is chef at the Red Cat; Mike Debettencourt has a gas station in O.B.; Marshall Carroll has the Texaco down the street. It’s fun to see your own colleagues surviving as small business owners.
What’s the future look like?
I’m so lucky to be in this captive-audience summer destination, I don’t think it could work anywhere else.
Alley’s General Store
Rhonda Bachus, manager
Spencer Booker, assistant
Rhonda, you’re a buyer, right? How many are on your staff?
R. Yes, I am the buyer except for hardware, which Spencer handles. I’ve been manager for 10 years. The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust owns the store, and I’m an employee of the trust. Spencer helps me with the farmstand in the summertime; he’ll set that up. In winter he often opens the store, and writes the hardware order.
We might have about 12 staff right now; in the summer we pick up and hire more. We have high school students, they’ll work three or four hours a week, then when school gets out, they’ll work more. We have a lot of local kids — they work very hard, some start at 14 years old. It’s very hard, for most it’s their first job. I treat them as adults and have them learn as much as they can. I expect a lot, they do a lot; they should be very proud of themselves at the end of the summer.
In the off-season, I like to do one or two shifts with them, since they should focus on school. I find that when they are responsible and they have their own money it gives them that incentive and confidence within themselves. They have some spending money but still have the time they need for school and family. Then in the summertime they come back.
What is the difference in sales between summer and winter?
R. We do about 10 times the amount per day in the summer, particularly in August.
It doesn’t get really busy until the Fourth of July, and continues to be busy through the third week in August when the Fair comes. It’s not a very long season. The rest is the shoulder season — it’s nothing like the summer. The only day we close is Christmas.
What is your big seller?
R. Beach toys and chairs sell well: we use the porch as a showroom for toys. I chose every one. Groceries are by far our bestseller. We have three aisles of groceries. I pick out a higher-end gourmet line for the farmstand.
The Tate cookies sell very well. I got them at the food show. We are self-sustaining, so nothing comes out of the trust: we aren’t losing money. I buy so many cookies because I know they will sell — they give me a big discount. I look for deals, so that we can make it through the winter.
What gives you the most enjoyment?
R. The kids … I like seeing their faces when things come in, whether they like the item or not.
What’s fun to me are the people — the staff and the customers.
It’s fun to go and see new things, and see what’s going to happen in the store — and see if my choices work.I had a toy that didn’t sell: a toy where you catch a ring (I hadn’t seen the product). And I still have the chilli salt and pepper shakers.
Do you research and buy locally?
R. I go to the international gift show and toy show in New York in February, and I go to Core-Mark food market to research products. We also go to Providence and New Bedford — I want Spencer to sample different farmstand products. Sales have grown in the food stand at least 10 to 15 percent a year. I buy as many local products as I can get. If it’s here on the Island, I get it from the Island. We built the farmstand so the farmers have a place to sell their things — where they can bring their produce and sell every day. We have a handful of people who bring us homemade bluefish pâte, Island-grown mushrooms, Mermaid Farm produce, North Tabor Farm greens, Linda Alley’s jellies, chocolates from Kathleen Cowley and Not Your Sugar Mamas, tomatoes grown in Oak Bluffs. Any small farmer who will bring things, I will take. It’s about supporting local people and eating healthy. It’s a win-win situation
How have you changed the store and what are you proud of?
R. I‘ve seen a lot of kids grow up here as workers — a former employee is managing a store in Austin, Texas, with 12 people under her. I’m very tough and strict, It’s very hard work, but they should be very proud. The store was losing money, now it makes money — it’s self-sustaining, and everyone has worked really hard. Each year it’s a little more; last year was our best year, the weather was so perfect — the weather counts a lot in this economy. It’s hard to find a mix of what people are looking for and buy and what will sustain a store.
We don’t sell lottery tickets, alcohol, or prepared foods, but we have a lot of merchandise, and that’s the difference. We are very fortunate because Alley’s has become a destination.
Spencer, what is your role at Alley’s?
S. I’m the hardware, farmstand guy, I’m wherever Rhonda needs me. What Alley’s is all about is stocking and supplying all year long. We’re on an Island, so we need a little bit of everything. This is a game of square peg/round hole — that is what we do — we make sure we have everything everybody needs all the time. You can still come in and get a battery or nails … or a pink tutu to go with it.
What do you like best about the store?
S. My favorite thing about Alley’s is the people. I’m a people person, and this is the place to be; for the three up-Island towns in particular, Alley’s is a major hub. It’s the first stop down-Island, the last stop on the way home. In the wintertime, especially.
Soft as a Grape of Martha’s Vineyard
Richard White, owner
Tell us about your background with Soft as a Grape.
I’m a psychologist by formal trade, that was my main gig. I worked with children and adults for 31 years. During that time, I was fortunate to work a summer job through a friend who took me into his company and taught me the clothing business; I worked all over the Cape.
I was brought in to be the summer manager on loan for eight weeks each year. Soft as a Grape is a family-owned company in Falmouth. The Katzen family developed an apparel business that’s been in business for 40 years.
I was assigned to the Vineyard one summer to improve sales. The first store was in Edgartown in 1989. I’ve been 25 years as an employee, and the past ten years as a signature owner, expanding the business in 2005.
When my wife and I decided to retire from our school positions, we made the transition, made the leap, sold our home, and moved to the Vineyard. I fell in love with the Vineyard, fell in love with with the brand. I’m 100 percent committed to Soft as a Grape as a brand. I’m selling what I know the best. And developing the territory.
Did you have any retail background?
Growing up, my family had a chain of hardware stores … I had a background in business. But I worked in education my whole life, and now I’ve come back to it.
Why the name?
When Alan Katzen attended Boston University in 1971-72, he opened the first store in Harvard Square, and called the business Soft As A Grape. He had a great interest in the T shirt component.
What is your bestselling product?
We have the best quality affordable T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, and resort apparel.
We manufacture our own clothing, we handle our own garment dye and screenprinting; we have full-time artists and an embroidery team. We are a wholesaler with a retail face. We sell to Major League Baseball — we have a sports-licensing franchise.
What is your favorite task?
I love planning the line: I coordinate the colors, pick out the designs, work with the in-house artist. I’m pretty good at merchandising from floor to ceiling. I can make it all work.
Besides the clothing and apparel, we have a giftware line and nautical plush toys, books by authors and publishers writing about the Vineyard … I was welcomed by a number of people here when I put up my shingle. I work with artists featured at Featherstone Center;
I work with John Holliday, a local high school art teacher; an artist from Falmouth works with us, and sometimes we cross over and turn a design into wearable art on a shirt. I go to gift shows, trade shows — the surf show in Orlando is the kickoff apparel show for the entire industry. We see what’s trending.
What’s in the future?
I’m good, we love having stores in the three down-Island towns. I have wonderful landlords who support what we are doing — we are very fortunate.