ELLSWORTH — Husband and wife team Scott Mayer and Susan Nordman are no strangers to opening a business. They’ve owned stores in New Jersey and Bar Harbor before opening in Ellsworth. But opening a business during a pandemic is a different story.
“How do you keep your customers safe, how do you keep yourself and your staff safe? We put a lot of thought into that,” said Nordman.
The couple were on hand in their new downtown boutique, Bliss, on a recent sunny afternoon, wearing masks, with a large bottle of hand sanitizer (made by Nordman) at the ready. There are other subtle changes (price tags are turned outward, for instance, so customers don’t have to touch them), and there is plenty of space to move around.
They were lucky in that they began ordering in January, in anticipation of opening, but the pandemic still threw them a few curveballs.
“I don’t normally make hand sanitizer,” said Nordman. “Purell does such a good job, and it’s so cheap.” But when it began disappearing from stores, Nordman started making her own, some of which she delivered to the Ellsworth Police Department.
“Bottles were impossible to find,” said Mayer.
“Still are,” Nordman added. “You’re waiting five to six weeks” for a case, she said, whereas before it was two days.
Some of their clothing artists had trouble filling orders early on, said Mayer, which meant the couple also had to “pivot what we were planning to buy.”
They also worked hard on their website, anticipating more online sales and making sure the aesthetic was cohesive.
“We love retail,” said Nordman, a certified professional accountant who worked managing New York City’s asbestos litigation medical records until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, before opening her first store in New Jersey. “It’s an art form, even if it is a dying art form.”
The couple make roughly a quarter of the items in the store, said Nordman, from ceramics to traditional Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flutes (made by Mayer) and the signature soap that started it all.
“That’s why we opened our first store,” said Nordman. “He kicked me out of the kitchen because I was making so much soap.”
They’ve since expanded from soap, and their store in the former Ruth Foster’s carries everything from hammered brass earrings to body butters (made by Nordman, of course), leather bags and delicate wooden pens, along with a line of “slow fashion.”
“The idea of fast fashion,” said Nordman, “to me is so wasteful. Just buying things that last one season … you know where you buy a T-shirt at Walmart and literally you get five washes out of it. If you stop and think about all the energy that goes into that, it’s landfill.”
The couple, who live in Lamoine and opened a store in Bar Harbor two years ago, said they considered a number of locations, including Portsmouth and points south, but are happy they settled on Ellsworth.
“Ellsworth was always kind of on our radar,” said Nordman. “One, the numbers work: it’s a growing town … It really fit into our lifestyle. This is where we wanted to be.”
Although they had planned to keep both the Bar Harbor and Ellsworth locations, the pandemic changed that, and they made the “painful” decision to permanently shutter the store in Bar Harbor.
Having a smaller space and higher rent, coupled with capacity limits, meant it just wasn’t financially viable, said Nordman. Some of the larger retailers in Bar Harbor are predicting making only about 10 percent of what they normally do, said Mayer. “Financially, you can’t even afford to pay your utility bills, never mind rent and staffing and inventory … It’s not sustainable for a small business.”
There was also the question of employees.
“Our employees are all older and whatever profit there is isn’t worth our employees getting sick,” said Nordman.
It was also important they be able to maintain their level of customer service.
“What we’re selling is bliss, not any particular product but a happy discovery experience,” said Mayer.
For more information, visit https://www.inbliss.be/.