Jamestown Designs celebrates 40 years
One of Jamestown’s oldest businesses will celebrate its 40th anniversary this week with an open house on Saturday. Jamestown Designs originally opened on the corner of Conanicus and Narragansett avenues, on what was then called the Hunt Block in the early 1970s. It was so called because Hunt’s Drug Store was located there.
The store has been at its present location at 17 Narragansett Ave. since sisters Carol Anderson and Deborah Anderson Swistak bought the building in 1980.
When the Anderson sisters – both former schoolteachers – opened their business, it was in response to what they saw as a need in the community. They had grown up when Jamestown was a vibrant community that included their family’s business, Anderson’s Dairy. But when the ferry was replaced by the Newport Bridge, the town became run down, they said. The business community had all but vanished.
“There were many needs that were not being met,” said Swistak. “The ferry had stopped running. The bridge had just opened. The retail was pretty much nonexistent. The town was distressed, far different than what it is today.”
The Andersons grew up seeing Jamestown as a self-sufficient town, and their idea that the needs of the townspeople were going unmet was alien to them. The once vibrant community they knew had ceased to exist, a situation they attribute primarily to the end of the ferry service to and from Newport.
The business that the sisters envisioned began in a small space at East Ferry. The inventory consisted mainly of children’s toys, cards, books and small gift items.
“We were trying to think of what people were going off the island to buy,” Swistak said. “If we could have just a little representation of that in our shop, then it would be helpful to the people who lived in Jamestown and relied on the town for their needs.”
Over the years the building that housed their original small shop had been sold three times. It had seen better days. When the present location of Jamestown Designs became available in 1980, the sisters bought it.
For its 40th anniversary, Jamestown Designs will offer refreshments to the customers that have contributed to its success over the last four decades. Visitors to this Saturday’s open house celebration will also receive a free matted photograph that comes with an embedded piece of Jamestown sea glass. There will be free polishing cloths with any jewelry purchase, and a drawing for an antique photograph framed in a mirror.
The Anderson sisters attribute the longevity of their business to a focus on items that are created by artisans – many of them local – that can’t be found in chain stores. They are open year-round and have a strong, local customer base. Like all Jamestown businesses, they enjoy increased traffic during the summer months.
These days the most popular items in the store are not necessarily the type of things that were stocked when the store first opened. Particularly popular is the framed artwork, which includes depictions of Jamestown by local artists. Also a big hit is the jewelry, much of which is handmade in the immediate area.
Sometimes products are added to the stock as a result of customer suggestions. For example, one customer said she was in need of a wedding gift in a certain price range. The sisters began to look for things that would fit her needs. Other ideas come as a result of attending trade shows like the annual Handmade in America show in Philadelphia, which they attend every year.
Aside from some fresh paint for the building, the Anderson sisters have no plans for major changes or renovations to their business. While they acknowledge that they will eventually want to retire, they are taking things one day at a time, content in the knowledge that family members are perfectly capable of taking over if needed. One of these family members is Cheryl Parker, who has been working at Jamestown Designs for 23 years.
“Anybody who reads the paper and sees that we’ve been doing this for 40 years will realize that we’re getting older,” Swistak said. “We just get up every day and go to work. We just keep doing what we know how to do.”
Carol Anderson hinted that there might even be some interest if there were a prospective buyer for the store. “You never know. Somebody might think that this is a business that they might like to have. Forty years is a long time to be in business.”
Swistak is looking forward to the upcoming events this summer, which will bring large crowds to the area. “We remember when the America’s Cup was here before,” she said, “and the Tall Ships. It brings excitement. After a long winter here, it’s nice to see enthusiastic people coming to Jamestown.”
The Anderson sisters have retained their love for Jamestown. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love it,” Swistak said. “We’ve been here forever. We grew up here.”