Meet the Entrepreneurs Behind the Southwest Harbor Renaissance

Meet the Entrepreneurs Behind the Southwest Harbor Renaissance

This summer several freshly remodeled shops and restaurants dot Main Street of Southwest Harbor.  Around the corner, the variety store that had sold newspapers and cigarettes is now a boutique with one-of-a-kind creations from socially aware artisans. 

But more than a new season is in the works. 

A Renaissance of sorts is occurring, led by several women.  These Southwest Harbor entrepreneurs, as if rebelling against the T-shirts and “lobstah” souvenirs of their big sister Bar Harbor, are creating a destination on the “Quiet Side” of Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. The revival is marked by a sense of community and social responsibility, with a deliberate nod to the past. 

Tucked between a restaurant and art gallery at 326 Main Street sits Bramble and Stone Maine, opened this summer by island native Mary Musson.  Ten years ago, when she wanted to earn $1,200 to help finance new siding for her Southwest Harbor 1950s ranch, Mary decided to sell some home-baked pies at her front door, also on Main Street.  The business took off.   

Since then, sales of pies from IslandBound Treats have skyrocketed, not only in the little cabin beside Mary’s house but at Mount Desert Island markets and lobster pounds.  Getting one of Mary’s blueberry pies, which earn five-star ratings from Yelp and Trip Advisor reviewers, has become as much of a ritual for returning vacationers as a hike up Acadia Mountain. 

This mother of three girls is now attracting new fans who love her frothy women’s tunics, stylish home accessories, children’s books and playthings, and wide selection of tote bags.  “I always wanted to have my own shop,” she confides.   

Upstairs in the two-story space, Mary kicks off her Menorcan leather sandals and curls up in a chair to talk about her entrepreneurship.  “Having this shop doesn’t feel like work,” she says. 

The “carefully curated” wares at Bramble and Stone aren’t necessarily something you’d buy on vacation, she notes, though the hand-painted whales or lamps crafted in Maine might fill the bill.  Mary expects to close the shop in mid-October, but open in early December for local holiday shoppers.  The summer season will start again in April. 

All year long she’s scouting for merchandise. “I love seeing what women are making and supporting businesses owned by women,” she says.  It’s a driving force for her shop.  For example, there are book gift sets for children that highlight women in art and women in science. 

Mary’s creativity has also found an outlet in renovating the space, which features dramatic beams boldly painted navy blue.  Not only was that her design choice, but she did the work.  “I’m a Maine girl,” she says.  “You don’t hire people to do something you can do yourself.”  

When Mary attended Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, she knew Kristina Stanley, who this year also launched a new venture, an ice cream and candy parlor called 360 Maine—at 360 Main Street.  Every day the nearby elementary school is in session, Kristina’s dream comes true at 3:15 pm as kids stream in to buy candy.  She’s quick to mention her own 5- and 10-year-olds are among them. 

A veteran of retail since she was 13 years old, Kristina worked in her mother’s clothing and footwear store and later operated it herself.  She bought and sold the building that housed that business, then bought and renovated the 100-year-old building at 360 Main Street.  With an eye toward the future, she says “This is for my kids.”  

An entire wall of the shop, which is painted the color of strawberry ice cream, is devoted to a candy array that would impress Willy Wonka.  Opposite are an ice cream counter and display cases full of tempting tarts, sticky buns, cupcakes, muffins, and scones.   

But whoopie pies are the big seller.  “People come in and ask, ‘What is a whoopie pie?’” Kristina says.  When they have tried one of the frosting-filled chocolate sandwiches made from her mother’s recipe, they like the answer.  One customer returned and bought every last one available. 

The back of the shop is an open kitchen, sparkling with stainless steel.  “I wanted people to see we are doing the baking here,” Kristina says.  Her pastry chef, who has owned seven restaurants herself, also creates lobster and crabmeat quiches, as well as a lobster and avocado BLT, which has been among the sandwiches made fresh daily.  Kristina has good local sources: her father is a lobsterman.  Already she is musing about the soups and chowders for cooler weather.  The shop will stay open until January 1. 

 Main Street intersects with Clark Point Road (there’s even a blinking traffic light).  Exploring in this direction reveals another new shop Tom Cat Tide, located at 16 Clark Point Road.  On some days, all three owners—long-time Mount Desert Islander Joan Jones and her daughters Debi Estep and Nancy Critchett—may be working, often with a granddaughter. 

Filled with enthusiasm, these women delight in presenting to shoppers the crafts and creations of 208 vendors. Their vision was to source from entrepreneurs who are devoted to sustainability and also from “small batch” artisans, says Nancy.   

In considering the beautifully made items, “Each has its own story,” adds Debi.  For example:  Richly patinaed candle holders made of wooden bobbins that were rendered obsolete when textile mills adopted plastic.  Striped totes and clutches, called “Burn Bags,” created with decommissioned fire hose by a female firefighter.  Handbags and laptop cases fashioned from recycled men’s suits by a grandmother who loves to sew.  Plus, some creations, like the texturized photo prints, are their own.   

The work of three Maine jewelry artisans enticed a local woman who said she is “obsessed with earrings.” 

Tom Cat Tide has a “killer card selection curated to make the store a destination for locals, Debi says.  After Thanksgiving, the three women plan to turn the shop into a winter wonderland featuring gifts, cards, and wrapping paperTom Cat Tide will close on New Year’s Eve and reopen in May.

For each sale of $100, Tom Cat Tide donates $1 to a charity the shopper chooses—whether an animal shelter or a program devoted to heating or food assistance.   

It’s not a surprise that many of the other businesses in Southwest Harbor sent flowers or gifts to welcome the new owners. The supportive community spirit is strong. 

But what about the shop’s name?  The defunct variety store that had been in the same location for three decades was called Tom Cat.  This season’s spring tide washed some new treasures into the vacant building . . . but not without a remembrance of things past.  And so rolls Southwest Harbor. 

 

 

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