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.”
Enjoyed the background of Roger. Always enjoy stopping in his shop because of his personality & unique items. Continue to be a blessing to the community & living the American dream. Sandra Murphy.
What an amazing journey and good soul and business man with unique products
Roger’s story is very impressive. I had no idea! I’ve vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard every year for the past 10 years. I was there last month, July 2021. My first and frequent stop every year is C’ est La Vie. I just added up my 4 receipts from my visits to C’ est La Vie this year, and I spent $1,001.23! Not only did I get great merchandise, I had great conversations with both Roger and his lovely wife. Great place to shop! Highly recommended!
Patricia King, Philadelphia PA
This little store on Circuit has many big surprises. Some of Roger’s tee shirt are his original designs and he comes up with many new and unique gift ideas. There is something for everyone in C’est la vie. Please stop in – even if it is just to say, ‘hello’ – you will feel the genuine love from Roger and his family.
Martha’s Vineyard is my “Little Slice of Heaven” and C’est la vie is a delicious bite. I’ve been coming to the Island for 28years straight. Unfortunately 2020 broke my streak, because of Covid. I was so distraught I called Roger from Philly and did my shopping, by phone. We had a great conversation, per usual, and when my goodies came, it was “Christmas in August”. Sight-unseen Roger was on point with everything, including his unique tees.
I walked into his shoppe year one, before him and his wife, Jennifer had the children. And now the children are working in the store, FANTASTIC!
AND please know this, I will continue to walk into his shoppe as soon as I step foot off the ferry…Note: my hands are forming a heart symbol
I love them, like a distant relative;-}
I met Roger when he was across the street from the shop he is in now. Just selling sterling silver, I loved his unique pieces…Every trio to the vineyard, I had to add to my collection. One year, the shop had moved across the street and that’s where his business grew! Adding all kinds of beautiful gifts and yes, unique tee shirts as well. I met Jennifer when they were dating and then watch them grow a beautiful family. They are beautiful people, and I’m so happy his roots are on the island! 💕
A lovely man and his family. It took me too long to be introduced to Roger by my friend Jacqui Hunt, but since then I have shopped there, and rarely go by when I don’t at least stop and wave, and receive a big, warm smile from Roger in return. May C’est La Vie go on forever.
Every time we come to the island we have to stop at C’est La Vie whether I’m ready to shop or not we stop and have commentary on the current political situation what’s going on in the island etc. Roger is full of gems I often ask him “does he think of the sayings for his T-shirts in his sleep, His reply is I don’t sleep” As I write this I am in Brooklyn New York wearing one of his T-shirts
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