February 24, 2011

The Right Stuff

While the tough economy continues to devour businesses, Bittersweet Blessings has managed to find a comfortable niche. 
Denise Trottier, left, makes a purchase at Bittersweet Blessings, a country store owned
by Michelle Stein, center and her mother-in-law, Barbara Stein, right.
Union Leader Correspondent
A long-john wall hanging fashioned from an
old pair of socks, and a primitive crow head, both
made by local crafters, on display
at Bittersweet Blessings in Chester.
CHESTER -- For 22 years, Barbara Stein ran a preschool from the basement of her home. But when the school district added public kindergarten, Stein was torn. She still had parents interested in continuing with her services, but she knew, as a teacher, that they’d be better off socializing in a larger group at school.
So in June 2010 she made the abrupt but final decision to give up teaching, leaving her with a bittersweet dilemma. “We had a great space here. It wasn’t long before my Michelle and I were thinking about what it would take to turn it into a country store,” said Stein, who along with her daughter-in-law, Michelle Stein, have turned a mutual love for primitive arts and crafts into a thriving niche business venture. 
“It was more like our husbands would kill us if we didn’t start selling and stop buying,” said Michelle Stein, going through a box of items just in from another country store that’s going out of business. 
Their store, Bittersweet Blessings, is not named not for Stein’s circumstance but rather her penchant for gnarled vines. As you open the door and walk down five steps it’s like entering a subterranean treasure trove just off the beaten path. 
“When my sons were younger I used to have them go out hunting for bittersweet vines for me,” said Barbara Stein. The “blessings” part is simply a karmic nod to their shared philosophy of gratitude, for family, friends and the ability to reap what one sows. 
“This is all from Crazy Crow in Suncook. They’re sending all their stuff to us, which is great for us and great for the consigners,” says Michelle Stein, pulling a series of remarkably simple-looking fabric-stuffed crow heads with a tiny jinglebell eyes and gauzy accoutrements from the box. 
The crows are among a pile of objects handmade by Kim Morin of Loudon, well known in local country craft circles, said Michelle Stein, which means the items will sell on reputation alone. 
Frankly, selling isn’t a problem, even for a store selling objets d’art in a down economy. 
“We opened in October and broke even by Christmas,” said Michelle Stein, tucking crow heads in crannied nooks while her mother-in-law shifted some more new merchandise from one end of the sales counter to another. 
“We’ve heard feedback that our prices are fair. We don’t have to mark up as much as other stores might because we really don’t have any overhead, except electricity,” Barbara Stein explained. 
The store is part of Barbara Stein’s home, so there’s no rent. Heat is generated from firewood. Her son Matt takes care of plowing and landscaping. Her husband, Lenny, handles electrical and plumbing needs. 
Another secret to their success is the constant turnover of items, with new pieces coming in daily, said Michelle Stein. 
“We have some kind of sale weekly, which might take away from what we make a little, but it really helps our crafters who consign,” said Michelle Stein. 
“They get 73 percent profit, which is pretty standard in this industry. People interested in country and primitive items normally don’t just go to one store. Usually there is a circuit of stores, and if they’re shopping, they’re hitting more than one.” 
Regulars, like Denise Trottier of Chester, look forward to seeing what’s new. Yesterday, Trottier was taken by some hand-painted yellow finch statuettes, which she paired with a birdhouse and a spray of spring flowers. 
“I really just like this kind of decor, so I come in every couple of weeks — I’ve been coming ever since they opened,” Trottier said. 
Similar spring-like items have been drawing in customers who seek relief from the white-and-gray landscape outside, said Michelle Stein. 
Delicate twisted vines featuring forsythia blooms or cherry blossoms set off with twinkle lights seem to be the current trend in home decorating. 
“We have another shipment of lit branches coming tomorrow — 70 pounds of branches, because our last batch of spring branches already sold out,” she said. 
On the front counter are chocolates made by Heidi O’Connell of Auburn and herbal tinctures and soaps by Jean Marie Belzile of Derry. 
Trottier gets a complimentary bag of Too Hot to Handle J.Drizzle Gourmet Popcorn, made by Joe Choquette of Chester. Hanging near a crow head is a tiny patched-up pair of long johns, hung with tiny clothespins on a twig, a whimsical bit of folk art fashioned by Paula Patrikas of Windham, sold under the name Paula’s Prettys. 
“When stores close, like Country Cupboards in Derry and Crazy Crow, our consigners lose out because they only sell through stores like ours,” said Michelle Stein. 
It’s not for lack of interest or demand in such items, said Stein, noting that despite some stores closing, another new store, Raven’s Nook, just launched in Hampstead. 
“I have some customers who come in and spend a couple hundred dollars every week,” she said. 
In addition to locally made wares, there are paintings, quilts, textiles, jewelry, candles, wall hangings, a potpourri bar and endless countrified knickknacks made in and around New England and beyond. 
“We do carry some of the popular national brands, like Park Designs, a textile manufacturer — that table cloth is Park Designs, for example,” said Michelle Stein, pointing toward an orange-and-gold checkered gingham cloth, typical of the warm hues and comforting designs that add to the peaceful ambiance inside the shop. 
“We have people who come in, not to shop, but just to sit for an hour,” said Michelle Stein. “They say, ‘I just needed some quiet time.’ We love that.” 

On the Web: www.bittersweet-blessings.com 

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