Roger Schilling stands all day behind his counter at C’est La Vie serving customers. When people pass by his store at 51 Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs, he immediately recognizes them with a wave and a big smile. Originally from France, Schilling is married to an American and their family’s boutique, C’est La Vie, is a not-to-be missed stop for seasonals, but few people know his background and his love for Martha’s Vineyard.
Born in Genevilliers, a suburb outside of Paris, Schilling grew up with his family in social housing. This Frenchman, who started off as a gym teacher, always had a fascination for the United States. After traveling here for the first time in 1982, Schilling was disappointed with his three-month stay in California, and decided to go back home. “For French people, the United States is either California or New York,” said Schilling.
However, he could not stay away long. Three weeks later, he moved to New York sponsored by the American embassy in Paris with a list of jobs in his pocket. The only job he could find was dishwasher for the Oyster Bar on Martha’s Vineyard. Little did he know this would change his life and he would go on to fulfill his idea of the American dream.
“When I landed in New York, I went to the YMCA and met another Frenchman. I told him I was going to Martha’s Vineyard. He said to me ‘Oh, Martha’s Vineyard! It’s the American French Riviera,’” explained Schilling, who had never heard of the Island before.
He immediately loved the Island. “There is something special about this Island which I loved right away. Secondly, I was surrounded by Black people,” said Schilling, who is a Black business owner. It was the first time he saw African Americans being part of the community, owning properties, having an education. “It wasn’t the same at all in France,” he added.
Schilling quickly realised he could do anything he set his mind to in America. When his roommate offered him a job as a painter, he could not believe this was possible. “Sure, I’d work for you but I’m not certified as a painter,” was Schilling’s immediate response. Having been raised in the French system of professions and unions, he was confused and believed that you couldn’t work different jobs unless you had the qualifications and certifications necessary. This was when Schilling understood the system: you could learn new trades. According to Schilling, “America’s beauty is the opportunity to constantly reinvent yourself.” When referring to the French system, he mentioned, “So many people have potential but can’t use it. They are caught up in the system and end up not doing anything, being stuck.” Schilling went from being a carpenter to working as a gardener. He ran a restaurant for a couple of years, had a horseback riding business for a while, and then became a waiter at Lobster in the Bluff, always saving every penny he’d earn.
His idea of opening his store, C’est La Vie, nearly 30 years ago came after this observation: many African Americans were shopping, but there weren’t many businesses with Black owners. “I realized that in the 1990s, African Americans spent $1.3 trillion in this country — now, it is over $2 trillion.” He recognized there were generations of Black families coming to Oak Bluffs. “I believed that if I opened a shop, they would come and support my business. And that’s what happened,” Schilling said.
He also applied a simple rule he learned years ago from Primo Lombardi, who owned and operated several businesses on the Island, “OC” which stands for “Opening and Closing.” Lombardi’s premise was that when you have a business, you are there when you open and when you close, you are there the entire day. “This is what I’ve been doing for the past 27 years, building a clientele. When people come, they expect to see me. I realized that I am C’est La Vie, and that’s crazy.”
Schilling named his store C’est La Vie because, for him, Martha’s Vineyard is life.
“This Island is a love story between this place and it’s community. The beauty of this place is that if you have this feeling, you can share it with everybody, whether you are Black or white, male or female, people connect to one another,” Schilling says. “I found a place where I feel at home.”
Schilling is a self-made man who observed, learned from working, and adapted his business to the community’s needs. “Today’s result is bigger than I thought it would be. Never would have I thought I would end up in such a situation, able to purchase a house, a building. It’s unbelievable!” said Schilling. “I had expectations, but today’s results are way more than what I’ve ever expected. I met several presidents and wonderful people… my shop has become an iconic stop for many customers,” Schilling says. He never thought in his wildest dreams he would be where he is today. “I am living a dream … I came to the right place at the right time with $1,000 in my pocket. I don’t think it would be possible today.”