|Marylee Martin inside her shop just before Christmas. She will be closing for good once the inventory is sold off.|
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Deciding to call it quits last week and close the doors of her downtown gift shop for good was bittersweet for Marylee Martin.
“The best day and the worst day of owning this business will be the day I close my doors for the last time,” said Martin, whose Poles Apart Artisan Gallery has been a fixture on West Broadway for six years.
Friday she announced she would be calling it quits, reopening today for a 50-percent-off, going-out-of-business sale that will last until the inventory is gone and the last fixture is sold.
“To be completely honest, if you believe in cosmic forces — and I don’t believe in cosmic forces — but it’s been a struggle and a half, with the economy and the community not exactly being supportive. It just wasn’t meant to be,” said Martin. “The bottom line is we’re out of money.”
The decision came after a “less than stellar Christmas” season, one she characterized as “the worst Christmas on the books,” without going into too much statistical detail. “It takes a long time to get a business going, and we knew that going in. We were willing to go the long haul, but we chose the wrong community to do it in,” said Martin.
Her store, which hung its hat on “made in the U.S. A.” goods, dealt in handmade items from upscale artisans around the country. It might have fared better in another market, perhaps like Portsmouth or Concord, said Martin.
“I don’t want to be negative, but I guess I just believed Derry could be a wonderful community — and I still do — I just think that a lot of what’s happening in Derry isn’t going to get us on the map,” said Martin. “I’m not an economic developer, but I think what we needed was an anchor retail store, one that the town could support and promote. It’s the only thing that would get people out here walking, and then maybe the rest of us would do better.”
Her landlord, Ron Dupont, said Friday that he was sorry to hear about Martin’s decision, which will render three of the four retail spaces he owns in the downtown vacant.
“I was thinking about it today, actually, as my wife and I spent some time shopping in Bellows Falls, Vt., which is a Derryish kind of town just over the border of New Hampshire,” said Dupont.
“I spent an hour and a half just walking around, in and out of shops, trying to figure out the formula that makes it work. They have a thriving opera house, just like Derry — although I understand Derry’s is underutilized — but just about every storefront is filled. I’m not sure why, with I-93 swinging right through it, Derry can’t attract more people and traffic.”
Dupont is one of the biggest investors in Derry’s downtown, holding seven lots valued at close to $3 million. He feels that the economy is obviously a factor, pointing out that Martin managed to survive for the past six years.
Tom Hankins, who owns Backmann’s Florist just up the road from Martin’s store, said he was sorry to hear the news.
“As a small-business owner you feel the pain every time someone closes. It’s what got me started with the downtown situation,” said Hankins, who recently stepped forward to head a downtown merchant’s association.
“We have to push back and come together and do some advertising — there’s just too much potential here,” said Hankins.
To that end, the town worked with shop owners in organizing a print advertising campaign leading into the Christmas shopping season, said Stu Arnett of The Arnett Group, a consulting firm contracted to oversee some key economic development projects in town.
A joint “Shop Downtown” advertisement campaign organized by Hankins and Bev Ferrante, manager of the downtown farmer’s market, allowed any merchant to advertise in a full page ad placed in a regional weekly publication for $50.
“It required a lot of persistence and follow-up, but now that they’ve organized a first joint promotion, hopefully the merchant’s association will continue to promote downtown as a destination,” said Arnett.
Town Councilor Kevin Coyle said the news of another shop closing is disheartening.
“It’s more about a change in the way people shop than anything. When I grew up in Derry we went to The Country Gentlemen to get pants. My mom shopped downtown for everything. Times are changing, and it’s sad. People aren’t going downtown to shop,” said Coyle. “I wish the Martins well. I hope things work out for the best for them, but there’s not a lot we as a town can do. We can’t change the way people shop.”
He said elevating Derry to a destination town like Manchester and Portsmouth would take significant investment by property owners.
“Unfortunately, so far no one is beating down our doors for that kind of economic development opportunity,” Coyle said.
Fellow Councilor Neil Wetherbee said as a small-business owner himself, this economy has made it tough on everyone to rebound.
Entrepreneurs have to go the extra mile if they’re going to survive.
“Attitude has a lot to do with it. In this economy, you’ve got to be creative. Still, it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing. If you can’t get good foot traffic, how do you get people to patronize your store?” Wetherbee said.
He acknowledged that there is still no magic bullet to solve the downtown problem, while noting that the council has placed downtown development on its short list of to-do items for the coming year.
“There’s not one factor in my view that’s causing the issues of the downtown, but we know it’s going to take some investment,” Wetherbee said.
In addition to the newly minted merchant’s association, the Moving Derry Forward Committee just wrapped up its short-term session with a presentation to the council last week, making some specific recommendations for moving forward.
Hankins said, on paper, the recommendations sound good.
“Council says the Route 28 TIF district and downtown are the top two priorities, and I’ll take them at their word. I don’t envy the council, with the school budget shortfall — it makes it harder to allocate money to the downtown. They have some tough decisions to make, and I hope they do what’s right for the town,” Hankins said. “It’s unanimous that a quality, vibrant downtown speaks volumes when it comes to making Derry a better place. We’ll see what happens next.” “ To be completely honest, if you believe in cosmic forces — and I don’t believe in cosmic forces — but it’s been a struggle and a half, with the economy and the community not exactly being supportive. It just wasn’t meant to be.”