Every July, much of Verona heads down the shore. They play in the surf, walk the beach and work on their tans. Come August, they come home. Most of them. But over the years, more than a few Veronans have put down permanent roots at the Jersey Shore for their families and their livelihoods.
Heather MacConnell is one of them, and her business, Artisan Spirit, is a tribute to shore living.
Growing up, MacConnell spent her summers on Long Beach Island. After graduating Verona High School with the class of 1982 and going to college, she moved to Florida before returning to Sea Girt and LBI. Then last October, she found herself up in Spring Lake, catching up with a former VHS teammate. Cara Hudson and her family are long-time owners of two stores in Spring Lake, It’s Good and Just Breezing. Just next door on 3rd Avenue was a vacant storefront and before she knew it MacConnell, who had created her own jewelry line, found herself saying: “Wouldn’t it be great to get a bunch of artisans all together there for the holidays?”
Hudson, who had played with MacConnell on VHS tennis, basketball and softball, handed over the name of the space’s landlord, and MacConnell quickly opened what retailers call a pop-up store. But while most pop-ups fade after a retail season, MacConnell’s Artisan Spirit became a permanent part of the Spring Lake storescape–after MacConnell consulted with Hudson.
“I relied on her to give me an idea of business in Spring Lake,” she says, noting that the demographics and interests of one shore town can vary significantly from the next. “The Hudson family is terrific and I knew they would never steer me wrong.”
Artisan Spirit features the work of craftspeople–MacConnell calls them “makers”–who embody the spirit of coastal living. Corey Hudson makes art pieces like the New Jersey map above from wood reclaimed from the destruction of Hurricane Sandy and the Seaside boardwalk fire. Julie Clauser Pone turns ordinary glasses into beach-bright drinkware. The spoons are from Beach House Living. The makers and their work changes constantly, but MacConnell knows each of them so well that she can tell her customers more than they might expect about the pieces they are buying, and she can share customer reactions back with each artisan.
“These are independent artists and they put their heart and soul into what they do,” says MacConnell. And they are definitely not mass-market. “The whole point is to keep the shopping experience here fresh and not like what you are seeing in other stores.”
That energy is part of the secret sauce at Artisan Spirit. Each of the makers has an established following on social media and social selling sites like Etsy, which amplifies the reach of everything that MacConnell does on the store’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Artisan Spirit also has the support of Spring Lake’s municipal government and chamber of commerce, which work to get the tourists in all year long. The town will, for example, be hosting an outdoor exhibit of works by New Jersey sculptor Seward Johnson from September 17 through January 1, 2017.
No matter what your reason for going down the shore, MacConnell would like to get to know you. “If you’re from Verona,” she says, “come in and say hi.”