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GUILFORD — In this tiny gift shop you’ll find everything from a handmade piece of pottery for a wedding gift or a stylish cashmere cardigan to “Poop Bingo,” a hugely popular game for little ones.
Evergreen Fine Crafts, a mainstay on the town Green, just turned 40, with 30 years at its current location on Boston Street. Co-owner Sharon Silvestrini said support from townspeople is the key to the shop’s longevity.
“They do not want a town with empty buildings,” she said about her customers. “They are so supportive of us — all of us.”
Folks come in the store in a good mood, too. “I never get crabby people in this store,” she added. “And there are hardly any returns … for these thousands of boxes that go out at Christmastime."
Their sales approach is low-key: “We both don't push,” Silvestrini said. “But I think we're just so approachable and we know we're loved here."
Longtime customer Deborah Hull echoed this, saying it’s the owners' “outsize personalities and friendship” that keep her coming back. In addition, the store offers “the most amazing selection of gifts and crafts,” she wrote in an email.
Part of its appeal could be that Evergreen is a brick-and-mortar retailer that offers personal service and doesn’t sell any merchandise online; Amazon and Etsy have not made any dent in its sales, the owners said. The clientele will often tell Silvestrini: “’I don't want to go online’” to shop for a gift, she said.
But Silvestrini and business partner Diane Robinson stressed they do use social media to get people in the store, posting photos of new merchandise on Facebook and setting aside items when someone comments, messages them or calls, the pair noted.
Amid the eclectic gift and craft assortment of handmade cards, velvet burnout scarves, coastal-themed cheese boards, silver and sea glass jewelry, is the children’s department, a favorite among grandparents who need to pick up a quick gift.
In this cheery nook can be found brightly colored book and games, including the aforementioned Poop Bingo — which toddlers find endlessly entertaining.
“Everything, anything to do with poop” is a huge hit with tots, Silvestrini said, laughing. For kids ages 3 ½ and up, Poop Bingo matches up animals with their individual droppings. Winners yell “Poop!” when their bingo cards are covered.
Best friends to business partners
Best friends Silvestrini and Robinson met at their corporate jobs working for Armstrong Tire in New Haven back in 1983. The store was a dream for the then-20-somethings who loved to go to craft fairs together.
“So we used to have this dream, we're going to call it Card Craft, and we were going to buy a lot of cards, and we're gonna buy crafts,” Silvestrini recalled.
When Silvestrini, who was unhappy in her job as a secretary, was laid off, “We really started thinking serious about this,” she said. “Then we just pulled the trigger on so little money. It was unbelievable.”
Then Robinson left her job in finance at the company to open the store.
“Talk about being naïve,” Silvestrini said, “Diane and I have never done retail before in our life — we had no experience whatsoever doing this.”
“It was all karma,” she said, “ Everything just flowed and it still has been flowing for 40 years.”
The pair enlisted their husbands to build the displays in their first store at Strawberry Hill Plaza. During the early years, their spouses supported them while they drew part-time wages and poured the profits back into the business.
The women felt welcomed by the town. “Guilford has supported us from day one, and Madison,” said Robinson.
But it wasn’t all roses for the business, which was not immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They survived largely through social media.
“I put things up on Facebook and they would call, pay for it on the phone and then they would come pick it up and then we wouldn't touch each other,” Silvestrini said.
“I came to work every day,” she remembered.
There were some items that sold well during the shutdown when people stayed home. “Puzzles were a big part of the COVID — I can't tell you how many puzzles we sold during COVID," Silvestrini said. "People would call us up on the phone and we would put a bag in the front or the back.”
They also sold lots of specialty mugs and comfy socks — Alpaca and Sole Mates, in fun colors and whimsical patterns.
Hug a Mug, still a mover, is a “handwarmer mug” with an curved wide handle with only one opening, so the user's hand cradles the cup.
While the pandemic affected business, Robinson said the Great Recession in 2008 “was worse than COVID” for sales.
"I mean, they just dropped purchasing because everyone was frightened,” interjected Silvestrini.
To survive, “We just pulled everything back,” said Robinson. “We just slowed everything down.”
“Because there was no money in 2008.” Silvestrini added, “There was no credit.”
“It took many years to grow the inventory back,” she added.
She also noted that Evergreen never carried debt. “We have never gone to a bank for a loan,” Silvestrini said. “We have done this all ourselves"
Learning on the job
Silvestrini and Robinon learned the ins and outs of retail on the job, sometimes the hard way. One of the most important lessons was realizing that they absolutely had to pay close attention to what their customers wanted.
“You can't buy what you like. ... You have to buy what they want,” Silvestrini said. This meant they had to reluctantly pass up objects “that were almost like the museum-quality stuff, but we knew that that was not our clientele.”
“We are not big gallery; we are a shop,” Silvestrini said.
Being a small shop allowed them to get to know their patrons better. Some customers would end up telling them their life stories as they shopped, Silvestri said.
“They pour their heart and soul out to me sometimes because they need somebody to talk to," she said. "And I feel so honored that they do that with me."
Silvestrini also enjoys helping clients who are looking for gift ideas.
“I say, ‘We're going to look through this store together. I'm gonna point some things out. I'm going to tell you the price. Don't say yes or no. Just, let's look at it together. And then if you find something you like …buy it and I'll wrap it.’”
“And I just try to slightly guide them and everyone picks my brain,” she said, especially those buying for the person who has everything.
Loyal customer Rosalie Robinson agreed. “If I need a gift for a special occasion I always find what I’m looking for," she said. “... Sharon and Diane couldn’t be more friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.”
If Evergreen does not carry an item someone is looking for, Silvestrini and Robinson cheerfully will help them find it somewhere else in town. “Whatever it is you're looking for, I'm going to send you in the direction to try to keep you on the Green,” Silvestrini said.
“So if I don’t have it, I don’t want you to go online, I want you to spend the money in town because we all need it,” she added.
Evergreen, 21 Boston St., phone:203-453-4324. On Facebook: evergreenfinecrafts.
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