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Mystic Army Navy's in it for long haul

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published April 12. 2014 4:00AM
Tim Cook/The Day
Shoppers examine the variety of military gear and collectibles at the Mystic Army Navy Store on West Main Street.
After 20 years in Mystic, the family-owned stores are community fixtures

Mystic - Carve out a niche in the marketplace, devote yourself to customer service and embrace the community.

Such is the formula for retail success, Michelle Gemma says.

And she should know.

Now the owner of the Mystic Army Navy Stores her late father, Larry Gemma, co-founded in 1993, the 46-year-old Gemma has a legacy to protect.

"We've been here for 20 years," she said this week, seated on a counter in her West Main Street store. "When I became the sole owner, I promised I'd keep it going for another 20 years."

Gemma, who grew up in Noank, has retail in her blood.

Her parents opened A Stitch in Time Boutique in downtown Mystic in 1973. Additional locations followed in the Olde Mistick Village shopping center, Groton, New London and Westerly. Later, after retiring from the Navy, Larry Gemma joined with Bert Dahl, another Navy man, to open the downtown Army Navy store. Three years later, they opened Mystic Army Navy II in Olde Mistick Village.

"It's a landmark in the community," said Tricia Walsh, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce. "Larry was a legend. We're so happy to see Michelle carrying it on. The chamber gets calls about the stores all the time. The uniqueness of what they have to offer is really special."

Gemma started working at the downtown store in 1997. When Dahl retired in 2010, she became a co-owner of the business. When her father died this past October, she became the sole owner.

"We have a niche, but it's a very broad niche," Gemma said. "That's why we've been able to survive."

The nearness of such installations as the submarine base and the Coast Guard Academy also helps.

"We sell a lot of T-shirts and ballcaps," she said.

Camouflage clothing, survivalists' gear and camping equipment are big items, too. Also available: Yugoslavian blankets, Bulgarian overcoats, French field jackets, pea coats, Zippo lighters and coffee mugs bearing military logos.

Teenagers, Gemma said, are making fashion statements with shemaghs, the traditional scarves worn around the head in desert climes.

Earlier in the day, she'd sold a U.S. flag and a flag pole.

"Since 9/11, there's a lot more appreciation for the military," Gemma said. "It's not partisan."

The stores purchase their merchandise from some 30 wholesale vendors, five or six of whom supply most of it. A small fraction of it is obtained from collectors.

Mystic Army Navy has had a website since 1998 and transacts 10 to 15 percent of its business online, Gemma estimated.

"We do a lot of special ordering," she said. "It warms my heart to meet a need."

Gemma, who often bicycles to work from her Mystic home, keeps laying the groundwork for another 20 years in business. In retail, she said, what goes around, comes around.

"I do my banking on Water Street, my accountant's on Williams, my lawyer's in Olde Mistick Village and my financial adviser's on Greenmanville," she said. "You shop locally. You buy your records at Mystic Disc and your books at Bank Square Books.

"You participate in your community and in turn you're supported by your community."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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Business Snapshot

Name: Mystic Army Navy Stores

Locations: 37 W. Main St., Downtown Mystic, 860-536-1877; 27 Coogan Blvd., Mystic (Olde Mistick Village), 860-572-5844

Owner: Michelle Gemma

Employees: 6

Website: www.mysticarmynavy.com

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