Main Street Retailers Stay Positive in Rockland and Camden
Businesses Get Innovative While Reopening
By Cece King
Shops along the Main Streets of Rockland and Camden have recently reopened, with activities and pleasurable shopping experiences are returning to these classic Maine downtowns. Positivity and innovation are the watchwords!
Grasshopper Shop, on Main Street in Rockland
Sierra Dietz’s parents opened the first Grasshopper Shop in 1975. This year, the family-run business has had to celebrate its 45th anniversary by finding creative ways to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Rockland Grasshopper Shop closed its physical location beginning in April, Sierra launched a new website. “While we were still closed, we were getting a good amount of sales online,” Sierra said. She found ways to pivot her business to a virtual model without losing personal connections with customers. For example, “In April, around Easter,” she recalled, “we were having a lot of customers wanting to put together Easter baskets for kids, so we were doing FaceTime shopping appointments with people.” Now, “since we reopened, the website sales have lessened considerably.”
The plexiglass covers at the cash registers and hand sanitizing stations are new “signs of the times” in the colorful emporium, and people are taking them sin stride. Business was bustling when I visited Grasshopper Shop, even with the requisite 6-foot gaps between customers. Sierra explained the store can safely serve 25 customers at once. “We’ve been really blessed with great support from our local customers,” she said. “Every week gets a little busier and feels a little more normal.”
As a member and former board president of Rockland’s chapter of the Main Street America program, Sierra has been working hard for all Main Street businesses. “We’ve continued meeting, talking about ideas and different sorts of promotional things we could do, and working with the city on street closures,” she said. “Businesses coming together and sharing best practices has been great, because we’re all interrelated and not really in competition.”
Seagull Cottage, on Main Street in Rockland
At the nearby gift and home decor shop Seagull Cottage, the cheerful staff greet customers, as background music—it could be from a seafaring movie where the main character falls in love with a mermaid—emanates from hidden speakers. Here you will find, intentionally strewn about, beautiful flotsam and jetsam and beaded jewelry that resembles floating seaweed.
The creative interior is the hallmark of owner Connie Sawyer, who only recently entered the retail business after a long career in banking. “The people that owned Seagull Cottage were friends of mine,” Connie said. “I stopped in one day, and they were considering closing the store.” Connie wanted to help keep the business going, and the owners asked her to be the store manager. “At that point, I did a lot of soul searching and prayers, and I decided to leave the banking world and do retail here.” Connie was the manager for just a few months before buying the Seagull Cottage in January of 2016.
Connie closed the shop on March 14, as national life changed with the coronavirus epidemic. About reopening in early June, she said, “It was very slow at the very beginning.” To encourage shopping Connie turned to social media. “We’re doing a lot more Facebook posts, and with those posts we’ve had a lot more sales.” She also isn’t charging extra for shipping.
Recently, business has been picking up. “It was comparable to last year,” Connie remarked about the Fourth of July weekend, “so I think that’s a positive example of what might be coming. I’m hopeful.” She attributes the spike to out-of-state visitors. “At first we had some locals coming in, but more recently it’s been people from away,” she said. “I’d really like to see more locals come in and shop downtown.” Connie said, “That would help us out a lot.”
Daughters, on Main Street in Rockland
Simultaneously retro and modern, Ariel Birke’s Audrey Hepburn-style micro bangs embody the fun look that customers find in her Rockland shop, Daughters. Ariel opened Daughters in 2017. Her space resembles a Los Angeles loft: light, airy, and minimalist. Ariel sells vintage clothing and beautifully designed, sustainable fashion, which she terms “eventual vintage.” “I think if you buy well and buy things you love and care about, you can have them for decades,” Ariel said. She also sources items made by women in Maine to highlight local design.
Ariel started off as a design student at Parsons but ended up collecting vintage. “I love hunting for things. I’m really passionate about jeans and Levi’s and finding things that make people feel good,” she said.
Reopening has been difficult. Like Connie Sawyer, Ariel is hoping for more local traffic. “This business is so reliant on tourism. I have some really great friends and customers who are local, but that [level of local customers] can’t sustain the business,” she said. Daughters has only been able to open regularly three days a week. Otherwise Ariel will meet customers for scheduled appointments, a pandemic innovation that she said has been successful. “I’ve been getting a lot of people reaching out about appointments, so it’s become clear that I need to add to my hours.”
Owl and Turtle Bookshop Café, on Bay View Street in Camden
Craig and Maggie White are going on four years of owning the Owl and Turtle Bookshop Café in nearby Camden. Owl and Turtle reopened on April 1 for curbside pickup, home delivery, and shipping. On July 1 they opened to the public, allowing in five customers at a time. Outside their shop, people sip coffee from the newly installed café takeout window while they wait to enter. “We took away all the seating inside, and we changed our cafe and built a to-go window. That way there’d be no café traffic indoors, so that people could come and browse for books,” Maggie said.
“Our café sales were obviously nil, but our book sales were up for the months of April and May,” Maggie said. Sometimes she and her husband would be working from 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. at night, taking and filling orders. “I think on our busiest day, we stopped at over 20 places to deliver books.”
Maggie wanted to make sure elderly Mainers still had access to books, so she made sure residents of Quarry Hill and other assisted living facilities knew that she and her husband would deliver to them. “People don’t always have the mobility to get out, so we tried to let them know we could drop books off,” she said.
Even when home deliveries are expected, Maggie found they could be awkward. “There’s this moment of [getting an anxious response]—‘Why are people coming? It’s a pandemic,’” she said. But she and her husband still manage to make the mail orders and deliveries personal and exciting. “Whenever we mailed books, we would gift wrap them,” she said. And they would often go an extra mile in another way, to bring happiness and show appreciation to their customers. “Whenever we could, we would include cookies with people’s books,” said Maggie, who also does the baking for the café.