Bananas changes hands

But the store’s spirit is here to stay.

Judy Hartford and Gina Solon at Bananas in West Tisbury. — Gabrielle Mannino

“Big News from Bananas!” That was the message delivered by mail last spring to 500 customers of one of the Vineyard’s favorite clothing shops. The store is Bananas Clothing, and the letter’s author was Judy Hartford of Oak Bluffs.

After 14 years as owner and manager of this unique destination store located at the head of North Road in West Tisbury, Hartford has sold the business and, with husband Thad Harshbarger, is leaving the Island. Vermont native Gina Solon, a 21-year resident of West Tisbury, took ownership earlier this week.

After purchasing the store in 2004, Hartford, while pursuing her other career as an Island psychotherapist, began to put her personal stamp on a space that once served as the town’s Post Office.  

“As a 2-year-old in Brooklyn, I would prance around the house in outrageous clothes,” she said. “Even while I was earning a degree in social work, I pictured myself owning a clothing store someday.”

Hartford quickly proved she was a natural. By listening to her customers, she became a skilled buyer, and built a loyal following. By offering selective bargains and a generous return policy, she created mutual trust. By incorporating artwork and other embellishments, she fashioned a distinctive environment. Bananas thrived.

“Clothes shopping should be a personal experience,” said Hartford. “Customers should feel ownership in the process, that they belong and are known. Loyalty goes both ways.”

Hartford’s patrons can rest easy. “I hated the idea of shutting down the store,” she said. “But I was lucky. It turns out I had the perfect buyer right around the corner.” Literally.

Two years earlier Gina Solon, who lives a stone’s throw from Bananas, had approached Hartford to say she’d be interested in buying the store if the opportunity arose. It was an intriguing notion, but quickly discarded by Hartford: “‘Don’t hold your breath,’ I told her.”

But life can surprise. Hudson, N.Y., a rural town near the Massachusetts border, beckoned. “Thad and I have known the town well for many years,” said Hartford. “It has a strong arts community, and a welcoming, open feel … much like Martha’s Vineyard. We decided on a new adventure.”

That decision was followed by a call to Solon in November 2017. Solon, with one daughter in college and another at the West Tisbury School, was eager for a new focus.

“The most important thing to me was to have a smooth transfer from one local owner to another,” said Hartford. “Gina and I are compatible as people and in our business ideals. We’ve worked together this summer, and she’s met many of my customers. Bananas will have a familiar look and feel, although Gina will adapt it to her own style.”

The new owner concurs. “We have similar tastes in clothing, and I love the space,” she said. “My approach is open — I’ll adjust as we go along. Judy is beloved, and her customers will be valued.”

As Hartford sees it, the pending transfer of Bananas Clothing, and the implicit commitment shared by her and Solon, is an Island story. “Martha’s Vineyard is a place of closeness, of mutual support between people,” she said. “Never in our lifetime has it been more vital for people to have such personal bonds.”

After a pause, she added, “Early in this process, I thought it would be too painful to come back. Now, it would be too painful not to.”

For 18 years, Judy Hartford has provided a place that delighted, transported, charmed and, on one occasion, inspired a certain Times reporter — who shall go unnamed — to parade down a fashion show runway at Featherstone sporting a head-to-toe safari outfit the likes of which have not been seen on the Island in quite some time. All of this has been the impact of Bananas and Judy Hartford.

Judy will be sorely missed. But Bananas is staying put.