New London — David Lewis and Marcie Boyer, who own the Flavours of Life store on Bank Street, are calling it quits after eight years in the fair-trade business.
The couple, who live in Mystic, said this week that they hope to find a buyer for the business by the end of May, when their longtime store manager, Katelyn Hill, is expected to leave for the birth of her first child. If they can't find a buyer, the store will simply close down.
"When we started the business, life wasn't as demanding," Boyer said during an interview at the 1,750-square-foot shop.
Lewis had just quit a research job at Pfizer Inc., and Boyer, who also worked at the pharmaceutical giant, would leave a year later to run Flavours of Life. The store had its first incarnation at a small space farther up Bank Street before moving to its current location across from Hygienic Art.
"It took two years to fill," Boyer said of the current space, which includes about 1,200 square feet of display area.
"Those were the good days," added Lewis.
But Lewis now has grandchildren back in his native England, while Boyer's daughter has reached her teenage years. Boyer herself has a demanding full-time job outside the store that takes up much of her energy.
Boyer said the couple had been neglecting their house and garden, as well as their own health, to keep the store running seven days a week.
"We want to have Saturdays off and go to the beach," she said. "We were living vicariously through our customers. We have all these great friends, and now we can visit them."
Boyer called the decision to leave the fair-trade business "really hard." She said Flavours of Life, though definitely affected by the Great Recession and its aftermath, is still a sustainable business.
Lewis said the store is being run more efficiently than ever. While the store's inventory of gifts, clothing and craft items once totaled $50,000 in its earlier years, the couple has pared down the offerings while keeping in mind what their wide range of customers want.
Lewis learned about the fair-trade movement - which he described as "the antidote to sweatshops" - back in 1998 when he was visiting England frequently. He introduced Boyer to the concept, and the message sank in during a visit to India in 2002, where she experienced the effects of severe poverty first-hand.
When the couple contemplated leaving Pfizer, they compiled a list of passions each of them wanted to explore, and the overlap seemed to point toward opening a fair-trade store.
The couple dipped their toes in the fair-trade business by participating in Saturday markets, church fairs and festivals for a year or two before launching their store in 2005. Lewis and Boyer soon became proselytizers for the movement, speaking to Rotary clubs, arts organizations and anyone willing to listen to their pitch for buying products from companies that pay a fair wage and don't make money off the exploitation of women or children.
"We were business people, not a charity," Boyer said. "We had to look at margins and review financials, but we had a mission on top of that."
Boyer said they chose New London for their store because it was an "authentic place," as opposed to a tourist destination. This meant that any customer who came into the store was hard won, because people supporting their cause had to seek out Flavours of Life rather than stumbling upon it, she said.
"We worked really hard to stay in business," Boyer said. "We could never take anything for granted."
Boyer said the store tried to cater to a diverse market, from tweens to 70-year-olds. And people came from everywhere, she said, little dots spread out on a map of New England, making marketing efforts challenging.
"We have a brand we've had to create for all these diverse groups," she said.
Despite the long hours and difficult economy, Boyer and Lewis are hopeful that their message of fair trade has reverberated throughout the region and beyond. Small steps toward "fair trade lite" taken by such corporate giants at Wal-Mart and Starbucks give the couple some optimism that public awareness is beginning to have effects on the mainstream marketplace.
"Will fair trade ever be more than a niche?" asks Lewis. "It will probably be small steps rather than a revolution."