Mystic - The Emporium gift shop has been a staple of downtown Mystic for more than 45 years, but its future is in doubt.
Longtime owners Robert Palmer Bankel and Evan John Nickles have put the Water Street building on the market for $799,000. And Nickles, the face of The Emporium for many years, says he could see the 4,250-square-foot building with an 1,100-square-foot upstairs apartment being used for any number of businesses, including a restaurant.
"There's lots of possibilities," he said.
A new owner could elect to keep The Emporium's inventory and name, at a negotiated price above the real estate cost, or might decide to start a new business, Nickles said.
"We are the building's current stewards, but we hope whoever (buys it) has the same kind of vision and respect for what this building means in terms of Mystic's history," he said.
Nickles, who is selling The Emporium to concentrate on the House of 1833 bed and breakfast in Old Mystic that he and Bankel are operating, said it's more important for a new owner to come up with a creative plan for the building than that the business remain a charming and quirky gift shop.
"It has lots of upside," added Judi Caracausa, broker-owner of Market Realty, who is listing the property.
The Emporium building dates to 1859, built by Isaac Randall, who operated a cotton-gin manufacturing plant at the current site of the Factory Square complex across the street.
The building, a general store that at one time served as Mystic's post office, was a focal point of village life in the 1800s, providing a gathering spot and a place to post Civil War updates on the status of men killed and wounded in the conflict, according to Nickles.
"This was the center of Mystic," Nickles said. "There's actually a spirit and a soul to the store and the building itself."
A smaller, previous building on the site had been operating as a general store since 1713, according to a history of The Emporium provided by Nickles.
The less than quarter-acre site on a ledge overlooking the mouth of the Mystic River has historic resonance as well, once serving as an encampment for the Pequot Indians as they sought to escape the warring Narragansetts. The Rhode Island tribe nevertheless attacked and killed many of the Pequots during a bloody battle in 1636, according to The Emporium history.
The Emporium's first owners, the late Lee Howard and Paul White, had a feel for the history of Mystic, said Nickles, and their restoration of the old building completed in 1965 might have spurred others to do the same, leading to something of a downtown renaissance.
"People were so surprised to see a store spring up in what really was a slum," Nickles said. "It was so visionary. They made the building come alive again."
If The Emporium's first owners gave it life, Nickles and Bankel brought the gift shop into a new age when they bought the store in 1978, creating a theater environment that tracked with their off-beat personalities. Bankel owned a popular store in Charlestown, R.I., called the Fantastic Umbrella Factory - a business he sold just last year - and the pair used a similar personality-driven approach in creating a new vision for The Emporium.
"We kind of talk to the building before we do anything," Nickles said of their approach. "Just like letting a bottle of wine breathe, we let a store breathe and listen to it."
They scoured shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., to find the most interesting, colorful and hip and trendy gifts available. They also introduced new items, such as hand-woven rugs from Poland, art glass from California and gold jewelry by the likes of David Yurman, now a world-famous designer, as well as stained glass and other work by local artists.
"We stayed on the vanguard of new merchandise," Nickles said.
Now the partners, who also have a 10,000-square-foot mansion with eight apartments for sale on Elm Street for nearly $1 million, are hoping to move on, though the gift shop will remain open until a new buyer can be found.
"Business isn't bad," Nickles said.
Summer-time customers continue to stream in, many of them boaters who make an annual sojourn to The Emporium's "three floors of fun" for gag gifts, sailor's knot bracelets, one-of-a-kind jewelry and a crazy collection of greeting cards, among other "notional whimseys" and "curious oddities," as an early advertisement promised.
"There's no other place like this," Nickles said. "It's such a part of the Mystic fabric."