Building an ‘authentic local brand’

Menemsha Blues has its roots on the Island.

Bob Fuller, owner Menemsha Blues — Gabrielle Mannino

Bob Fuller began his career teaching and coaching high school and college sports. From there he moved on to running a real estate brokerage firm, and then he was a builder for about 20 years.

“But then, toward the end of the ’80s,” said Fuller, “the real estate market became compromised, and I decided it was time to make a change.”

But a change to what? Fuller was not too sure about that, but what he knew for certain was that he wanted to move permanently to Martha’s Vineyard. He had built a summer home in Chilmark in 1978, and it was here on the Island that he felt most comfortable. Fuller was working on a few construction jobs on the Vineyard, and he decided to move here permanently in 1991.

One afternoon he took a drive to Menemsha, his favorite place in the world, and saw a building for sale that had formerly been an art gallery. The old real estate broker in Fuller kicked in, and without knowing what he’d actually do with the building, he bought it.

It occurred to Fuller that the building might make a good storefront, but he’d never had any retail experience — then again, that had never stopped him before. He thought that a line of clothing would work, merchandise that was relaxed, comfortable, casual clothing that captured the essence of life on the Vineyard.

As for a name, “Well, ‘Menemsha’ was a natural,” said Fuller, “and two of the other great loves of my life were fishing for bluefish and the blues, so the name became Menemsha Blues.” He even went so far as to sketch out a logo, a bluefish/codfish hybrid that would look great on apparel.

When asked about the business challenges he’s faced, Fuller said that learning the retail business was right up there. He began by going to sportswear shows and talking to as many people as possible, getting a sense of how different manufacturers fit with his vision of Vineyard lifestyle-inspired clothing.

He struck up relationships with companies like Columbia and Helly Hansen, and especially Royal Robbins, with whom he’s worked now for about about 17 years — they account for about 10 percent of his merchandise today.

The Menemsha village store opened in the spring of 1995. At the time it was manned by just Fuller and a graduate student here for the summer. The clothing was initially split equally between branded merchandise from Columbia and Royal Robbins, etc. and merchandise branded with the Menemsha Blues label. “All my [Menemsha Blues] merchandise was gone at the end of the season,” said Fuller, “and only a third of the other merchandise was gone.” The next season everything in the store had the Menemsha Blues label.

“Three or four years later,” Fuller said, “things were going well, so we decided to open up another location.” Ralph Packer had an old grain building across from the Steamship Authority offices in Vineyard Haven, and Fuller thought this would be a great location, with a lot of traffic. He leased the building from Packer, and spent the winter of ’98 renovating it — much care was given to keeping the old character of the grain shed, with its exposed beams and tin roof.

Before Porto’s Pizza took over the space next to Menemsha Blues, it was occupied by an old car wash. When Porto’s leased the property from Packer, Fuller brought in his son Jesse (Fuller’s Landscaping) to do some major landscaping work, including a walkway down to Water Street with a gateway that welcomed people up to the shop.

In 2003, Menemsha Blues expanded into Oak Bluffs, and once again Fuller ventured forth into a field where he had no experience. He opened up Menemsha Blues Sandbar & Grille, a clothing store/restaurant combination on the waterfront in Oak Bluffs, along with three partners. “After three years,” said Fuller, “I realized that running a restaurant was not my cup of tea, and I was bought out by my partners and moved the store up to Circuit Avenue.”

Fuller says Menemsha Blues had a few other missteps along the way. When he first opened up in Menemsha, many people didn’t realize that the store also sold womens’ clothing. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the women’s boutique next door would always refer to Menemsha Blues as “the men’s store.” Fuller put more of a marketing and merchandising focus on women, and today the mix is about 50-50.

A few years ago, Fuller put a big push on merchandise for infants and children, and he admits he may have gone a little over the top. Today the children’s business is doing fine, but he’s cut it back to basics: “No more frilly dresses for girls,” he said.

Finally, based on his success on the Vineyard, Fuller decided to open up some off-Island stores. He opened up shops in New Hampshire, Nantucket, and Florida, primarily along with family and friends. But frequent traveling to check up on the stores didn’t agree with Fuller, and he decided to close down the locations. “I can check on all my stores in a day here on the Island, and still have a life,” said Fuller. “I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Granted, Menemsha Blues has made a few false starts along the way, but that’s the nature of progress. Fuller has built an “authentic Vineyard brand,” as his marketing tagline states, and like his clothing, he’s very comfortable with the business he’s created.