By Sara Karnish
Items that best capture a moment or place are among the most in-demand gifts at beach gift stores. Whether it is a name-dropped picture frame or unique piece of art by a local crafter, visitors to beach gift shops gravitate toward the items they know they won’t find anywhere else.
Carol Lee Kelliher, owner of Carol Lee’s Cottage in Rockport, Mass., prides herself on carrying the beach- and Rockport-themed merchandise customers love, but won’t find in other local retailers. Among the best-sellers in her 300-square-foot shop are etched drinking and wine glasses featuring the recognizable Rockport key logo, sea glass, and a Rockport bag, custom-made in Bangladesh for her shop using fair trade practices. “I only sell things in the store that I would personally buy,” Kelliher explained. “There is a certain level of quality and taste that I like, and I think that’s reflected in the pieces I sell.”
Likewise, Jayne Briard, manager of Four Winds Gifts in Nantucket, Mass., said Nantucket-inspired gifts are strong sellers with her customers. Briard said Four Winds has a bit of an advantage—the store is housed in a former blacksmith shop, so history and architecture buffs are drawn to the building itself, and shoppers love to browse the shop’s merchandise. “Our biggest gifts are smaller things like mugs, Nantucket-themed towels, ornaments, wineglasses, and food like jams and jellies—we have our own line. Really, the items that pack easily,” Briard said. “We’ve partnered with a company called Rustic Marlin. They make Nantucket-specific signs and painted blocks with maps on them. They’ve done really well.”
Smaller gifts which fit easily into a suitcase or backpack are big sellers at Abracadabra in Port Townsend, Wash., according to Owner Marion Lodwick. “Puzzles and games—things families can do together [are top selling gifts],” she explained. “And stickers, surprisingly, are a top seller. They are affordable, and fun, and with all our choices, it’s hard to pick just one [design].”
Besides gifts, a category with consistently strong sales, there continues to be a demand for stationery. Handwritten notes had something of a Renaissance during the COVID-19 pandemic; the trend has continued. “Our best-sellers in that category are notepads—both magnetic and the regular, standard notepad,” Briard said. “They’re all Nantucket-themed, custom designs. We thought [stationery sales] would die down for awhile—it’s really moved in the last two years. This year I did very well with stationery—not so much cards or notecards, but the notepads.” Kelliher sells an assortment of notecards bearing inspirational sayings; at Abracadabra, Lodwick said journals are a big item. “We have a wide variety, many with inspiring prompts. We also have a large section devoted to cards, many by Pacific Northwest artists. It’s a great way to buy a small piece of art.”
Grace Cole, owner of Scribe Paper & Gifts in Marblehead, Mass., said some of her stationery items are among her best-selling gifts. She does well with acrylic note cubes, notepads, and letterpress stationery, as well as timeless choices like candles and body care items. “As far as straightforward stationery, the boxed correspondence and notecards—I carry Crane—and an Italian imported box sell great. They retail for $35, which is a great price point. I have people coming in and buying it all the time, so I’m constantly reordering. My invitation business dropped dramatically during the pandemic, but the card business was huge. I would post my favorite cards on social media, and people would come by and do curbside pickup.” She added, “I think the forced separation made people take stock. They realized how impersonal texting is. Getting a handwritten note mixed in with the bills and fliers is such a joy. We really saw how much it makes someone’s day.”
Because of their seasonal nature, many beach gift shops largely cater to tourists. Year-round retailers enjoy additional business from locals; many know their customers personally. “We have about 20,000 people here year-round—in the summer it swells to 60,000,” Briard said of Nantucket. “In the spring and fall, my customers are definitely the day trippers. I just try to keep my merchandise fresh. Because we’re an historic building, we’re limited with what we can do inside. Most of my customers, because I’m very connected to the community, know they can come to me or call me if they are looking for a particular item. We always have things like the jams, jellies, and mugs. When we bring in new items, we just hope [people] will buy them when they come in.” Lodwick has a strong local customer base. “We cater to locals, and they bring their visiting family and friends. We also have tourists who return year after year. We are a popular store and inventory moves quickly, so new inventory is always being put out. Customers come in frequently to see what’s new. When new items come in, we completely redo displays so they stay fresh. It is a bit of a treasure hunt at times because things are always being moved around the store.”
Kelliher added, “In the summer, Rockport is a destination. I’ve lived in Rockport for five or six years. I knew it was popular, but it wasn’t until I had my store that I learned so many people come here from Canada and overseas. I stay open all year, and I have a nice local following—people will drive up here from Boston and Cape Ann, as well.”
These store owners utilize different tips for selling gifts and stationery. “I look for graphics that catch the eye,” Lodwick said. “I have a lot of color in my store. It is a happy place for people to spend time as they look for a gift or pick out a treat.” Briard stressed the importance of product placement throughout the store. “If the store is laid out well, customers will see the merchandise. We keep our stationery right by the register—it definitely has to be in the right location. We also group it with other ‘like’ items in displays.” Kelliher gets to know her customers and what they are looking for, then makes appropriate suggestions for different gifts.
Displaying merchandise in eye-catching ways allows staff to show off their creative sides. “I open up our big barn doors. There is so much to see, it can get overwhelming,” Briard said. “I put the new and/or seasonal items right in the front. I also like to group items by theme.”
Due to limited space in her shop, Kelliher makes the most of every available square inch. “I’m in a prime location on the Neck—it’s a big walking place; people are constantly walking by with their dogs. I have a window right on the Neck, so the window display is important to me. I want it to be attractive and changing it frequently is key. I’ve learned people notice it and will contact me if they’ve seen something.”
Cole minored in fine art in college and puts her skills to use when creating displays. She said, “Telling a story is important. Sometimes I’ll put like colors together, and it creates a visually pleasing display. I also like to keep things organized. I think the best displays are organized, clean, but also have some negative space to give the eye a rest.”
Whether locals or tourists, long- or short-term visitors, beach gift shops are grateful to the customers who keep their doors open all year long. Cole said her local customers kept her going during the pandemic; during the summer she has a 50/50 customer base. Lodwick said, “We work hard, and our first priority is always our customers. We stop whatever we are doing to talk and laugh and have fun with our customers—helping them when they want help, but also letting them browse to their heart’s content.”