Old Lyme’s Bowerbird Celebrates 30 Years

Note: this article was originally published in The Day on May 12, 2019 by Mary Biekert.

Old Lyme, CT – Over the last three decades, The Bowerbird shop, which sits as the anchor to the Old Lyme Marketplace, has established itself as a beloved local business adored by area residents and highway passersby alike. Delighting customers with quirky and fun yet functional merchandise, the shop celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.

Viewing the anniversary as a “major accomplishment” in the world of brick-and-mortar retail, owner Chris Kitchings, who co-founded the shop in 1989 with her close friend Jennifer Torgersen — who has since retired — said The Bowerbird will celebrate for the entire month of May, with discount sales on certain items.

“In retail years, I think a 30-year anniversary is the equivalent to about 50 (years) back in the day. If you opened a store today, you probably wouldn’t be here 30 years later,” she said Monday, while sitting in her upstairs office above the shop. “With the Internet age, it hasn’t always been easy to keep a brick-and-mortar shop going. The competition has been fierce. So this is certainly cause for celebration.”

Kitchings has been unyielding in keeping her store a permanent part of town, even with online competition that she describes as an ever-present force threatening her customer base.

“We’re still going,” she said. “It’s the passion we put into this. The dedicated staff I have.”

Having established her shop in 1989, Kitchings also said The Bowerbird wouldn’t have survived this long if it weren’t for her loyal customers, most of whom come from the Lyme-Old Lyme area, but also from towns and cities across the region.

“It has a reputation. People know it’s the exit to get off to get something cool,” said First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, who said she has watched the store grow and become an active part of the Old Lyme community over the last three decades, donating to local non-profits and helping other local groups with its fundraisers.

“I think people in Old Lyme feel possessive about the Bowerbird,” Reemsnyder continued. “It has a unique name, unique items, and it’s almost like a character of Old Lyme. People just love it and they want it to stay.”

Fun plus functionality
With merchandise ranging from off-kilter and often colorful home, kitchen and garden items to beachy clothing, quality handbags, children’s toys and, of course, greeting cards, The Bowerbird is the perfect place to shop “for yourself or for others,” according to longtime customer Bobbie Seebeck, of Groton, who stopped by the shop Tuesday and bought a handful of items including luxury pajamas, Stonewall Kitchen jam, greeting cards, and napkins — “beautiful napkins with beautiful designs” — among other delights.

“(Kitchings) has things you can’t find in other places. It’s all very unique,” Seebeck said. “The main reason I go is to buy a gift for someone. If you need a gift for anyone or anything, you’ll find it there. But I love to shop for myself, too.”

Having been a loyal customer to the store since it first opened when she was living in town, Seebeck said that she still comes to the shop “a couple times a month” despite the drive from Groton.

“It’s always worth it,” she continued. “And it’s great because there is always something new.”

Reemsnyder added to that thought Thursday, saying, “It’s just that special kind of place that really has the heart of Chris in it. It’s the personal touch she adds to it. She is a very creative person and the store reflects that.”

On Monday, while perusing through aisles of games, greeting cards and pet toys, Kitchings’ obvious passion and love for her shop was evident. Acting as an extension of her personality and her many interests, the store has remained, since the day it opened, ever-morphing depending on what strikes her fancy, she said.

“You can tell just by looking around what I’ve been interested in over the years. For example. Last Winter. Puzzles,” Kitchings said, while walking by racks of puzzles in one corner of the store. “Or this. I just had to get these Ruth Bader Ginsburg dolls because, come on, she is so inspiring.

“I like to think of it as a place full of ‘impulsive necessities,’” Kitchings said, also explaining she trademarked that catchphrase for the business. “It’s a place where people come in and see things they didn’t know they needed, and then, suddenly, they decide they need it now.”

Explaining how she selects her shop’s merchandise, Kitchings said she bases her decisions simply on what “excites” her.

“I want items with true function,” she said. “The popular thing right now with Marie Kondo is, does it spark joy? But for me it’s, will it function? And then, is it fun? You want things to be fun.”

‘Giving it our all’
With about a dozen employees and nearly 5,000 square feet of floor space, The Bowerbird has grown significantly from its beginning days when it was housed at 68 Lyme St. — a 500-square-foot shop that is now the Nightingale's Acoustic Cafe.

“It started out pretty much how you see it now, but in a condensed version, if you can picture it,” Kitchings said, laughing about fitting everything in her current store into the first tiny space. “The store was packed because we had every category. It was small. But we had kids’ items, jewelry, greetings cards, clothing at one point, kitchen items …”

Kitchings said the idea to open The Bowerbird began when she noticed the town needed a shop like hers.

“I didn’t tell anyone about my idea because I was afriad they would do it themselves,” she said. “It was something I thought the town needed. ... I had to travel to Guilford back then to shop at a place even similar to this.”

So she told her friend, Torgersen, whom she met through her son’s kindergarten class at the Center School, about the idea.

“She was immediately on board with it,” Kitchings said. “She thought it could really work.”

In June 1993, The Bowerbird relocated to its current location, formerly home to Brown's Hardware in the Old Lyme Marketplace, quickly filling up the 2,500-square-foot space, which was five times bigger than its original shop. Then, in 2000, Kitchings convinced the landlord to build an addition, doubling the store's square footage.

“We made him a believer,” she said, laughing.

But even through the success of the past 30 years, the day-to-day ups and downs of running a small business remain difficult — “More difficult than most people realize” Kitchings said. “I’m incredibly organized. I have a system for everything. You couldn’t survive without that. And I’m a hard worker.

“But in all reality, sales have been struggling,” Kitchings admitted, describing the future of traditional retail as unpredictable. “Year over year we’ve been seeing this gradual falling off on where we were. We keep hoping we will hit a plateau, but I don’t know that we have. So we have to keep tap dancing as fast as we can and we are giving it our all.

“We are keeping optimistically hopeful,” Kitchings continued. “We’ve remained open all these years because of our tenacity. Because we are a truly great, customer-service oriented store. And there is nothing else quite like this place, really.”