A group of artisans has energized a sleepy Rockport strip mall into a vibrant maker community
“The vision here is a collection of curated shops that are more focused on offering something to year-round residents. And we all believe in the power of small business.” That’s how Jocelyn Pierce, 38, owner of Mayflour Cake + Confections and her new-ish coffee shop, Blume, puts it.
She’s talking about the Whistlestop Mall, a kitschy strip of attached buildings on the back side of the Rockport T station, that has attracted a group of artisans and makers dedicated to creating beautiful handcrafted goods — and building a community.
This row of petite spaces is reminiscent of the rustic fish shacks that line Rockport’s more famous shopping district, Bearskin Neck. It’s also a little bit Storyland. Each shop door is topped by a peaked roof, with trim and clapboards lyrically painted in colorful hues. The far end of Whistlestop is punctuated by a local mainstay, the Dairy Train. It all feels like a relic of an innocent time when families of tourists roamed this seaside town in search of simpler things: taffy, fudge, and postcards.
Today, the Weekends at Whistlestop (most are open weekends only) shops offer hand-sewn men’s footwear, cutting boards from locally-milled woods, jewelry carved from Cape Ann blueberry cuttings, Asian-inspired images and textiles, and of course, coffee.
Every good meeting begins with coffee. The cornerstone of Weekends at Whistlestop — and the prize you get for finding it here, is Blume, where coffee — and a little something to go with it — is an art.
The accolades started raining down on Pierce’s first business, Mayflour Cake + Confections (see our story here), almost as soon as she finished frosting her first lavender cake with honey buttercream. Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” (in 2016 and 2017), Martha Stewart Weddings, North Shore Magazine, Style Me Pretty, and others have declared Mayflour wedding cakes the most beautiful and the most delicious in the area. Pierce has built Mayflour on sustainable values and local produce, and now she’s building a small community to match.
The first of the Whistlestop makers to move in, Pierce built her kitchen space into a Martha Stewart-style industrial-chic kitchen. Not long after, she opened Blume, a small coffee shop with Kinfolk hygge in the space next door.
Blume serves a cup of coffee as carefully curated as a Mayflour cake. Pour-over or drip brews are available. Weather- and season-dependent, Blume offers house-made flavored sparkling waters or lavender hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. Or, if you’d rather, hot mochas with coffee-flavored homemade marshmallows. Each morning (the shop is open Friday – Sunday mornings) there are a least two cake plates of seasonal Mayflour offerings: sour cream coffee cake, buttermilk scones, a variety of teacakes (lavender, rosemary, or lemon), and Beach Buns — half muffin, half donut rolled in cinnamon sugar. In cooler weather there are treats like blondies and tahini brownies.
There is a bench beneath a sunny window inside Blume, but even better are the cafe tables outside. The benches and the tables here have made the car and foot traffic heading to Rite Aid or Crackerjacks so engaging you find yourself deciding to slow down … and linger just a little bit longer.
Kaja is Stephanie Cornell’s personal love letter to Korea and Japan, where she lived for almost five years.
A Rockport resident, a musician, photographer, and filmmaker, Cornell, 46, found herself drifting west a few years ago, first to Austin, Texas, and then all the way to Asia. In South Korea, Cornell soaked herself in the culture, from the kitsch to the kitchens. A few years later she moved to Japan, where she dug in again. She returned home six years ago, but Asia still tugs at her, and in Kaja she’s found an outlet for that affection. She describes the Kaja goods as everything she would pack in her suitcase to bring home as gifts. “Let’s go!” in Korean is “Kaja!”
In Seoul, Cornell lived near the country’s largest art university, Hongik University. The neighborhood was filled with stationery shops, cafés, galleries, and student showrooms. Good design was everywhere.
“Everyone knew about Hello Kitty,” Cornell says, “and Japanese animé, K-pop, traditional silk prints and art — but there was so much more incredible modern design happening in Korea.” Kaja is Cornell’s space to curate this unique design perspective, which is rooted in that country’s long tradition of silkscreen and lacquer.
“And of course, both Japanese and Korean stationery shops are on a whole other level,” Cornell says. “Those shops were a constant source of inspiration. I found the artwork clever, simple, and inspiring.” Today, Kaja offers Cornell’s own Eastern-inspired stationary designs, including her favorite desk calendar, a collaboration with her father who uses scrap wood from the Fisk Organ Company where he works.
Kaja also carries books from some of her favorite Korean and Japanese authors, including Haruki Murakami. “I read everything he wrote when I moved to Seoul.” For those stepping off the Rockport train and headed to the beach, or getting on the train with a ride ahead, this is the place to stop for a novel.
Not averse to domestic products with Asian energy, Cornell carries all-natural hand-dyed indigo pouches and pillows from Gray Green Goods in Newton and for the holiday season, handmade wreaths from Melissa Chao in Watertown.
Cornell plans to return to Asia in the spring for more products, including textiles — and snacks! While living in Seoul and Tokyo Cornell often returned home with suitcases stuffed with those very Eastern treats. “I loved bringing small packages of my favorite teas, snacks, stationery, stickers, Pocky, and some weird Japanese Kit Kat bars to friends I knew would appreciate it. I couldn’t bring street food back with me, so this was the best way I could share my whole experience of living in Asia to the people closest to me.”
Close Quarters Collective
Alyssa Pitman, Winston Daddario, Shana Holub, and Sarah Wonson — the Close Quarters Collective — are all artists with a shared basic style. Each of their products — from fine cabinetry to hand-carved spoons, chopsticks, cutting boards, brooms, ceramics, and jewelry handcrafted with local wood are about beauty, functionality and local sourcing.
“We share a complimentary aesthetic,” ceramicist Shana Holub, 28, says. “All four of us appreciate simple lines, traditional forms, and simple negative spaces. And, we appreciate the simple use of materials.”
Alyssa Pitman, 38, grew up in Essex on Southern Avenue. Her father had a sawmill on their property — “but I was never taught to use it,” Alyssa points out. She was too young. So grown-up Alyssa decided to go west, to the California College of the Arts, to get an MFA. Her program, which explored art as social, political, and economic forces, was heavy on concept. One day towards the end of her studies, a friend taught Alyssa how to carve a wooden spoon.
“By that point I’d become sort of jaded by the business of art. I was feeling sort of unprepared for the world. I started making spoons as a release from all that.”
Pitman ultimately moved back to Cape Ann, and began working as an artist assistant for sculptor Pablo Eduardo, where she met Winston Daddario. Daddario, 28, had been working in post and beam construction, and from there began exploring joinery and Shaker furniture making. In 2013, he bought an old Gloucester church that was badly in need of his skills, and where Pitman, Daddario, and their new baby, Oscar, now live. Pitman and Daddario have combined their crafts to create Spire Woodshop, part of the Collective.
Pitman still carves beautiful spoons, but also makes wooden hair combs, butter knives, and chopsticks — all hand-carved implements made with local wood. Each has the fundamental quality of being beautiful to look at and even more beautiful to hold. And, now Pitman has moved on to brooms. The broom handles are turned on a lathe, while the bristles from smaller brooms are made with broom corn grown at Alprilla Farms in Essex. The larger brooms use a variety of sorghum.
Daddario makes plant stands and cutting boards, but also finely-crafted custom furniture, samples of which are in the store, including their live-edge coffee table.
Shana Holub moved to the North Shore from her hometown, Mentor, Ohio, to attend Endicott College, where she graduated with a degree in Interior Design. In college, she discovered Rockport potter Cynthia Curtis where she would eventually become an intern. A mature ceramicist now with a gifted personal sense of form, function, and glazes, Holub’s work makes up the third element to Close Quarters.
Jewelry maker Sarah Wonson, 34, the fourth Collective member, grew up in Bayview. She started printmaking at Massachusetts College of Art, and then a few years ago became more interested in drawing and painting. And yet, she says, “I was always interested in wood and how it looks. I made my mother buttons for Christmas.”
Wonson uses the trimmings, prunings, and cuttings from local gardens for her jewelry. “The wood I work with is mainly a found thing. Locally I can get rhododendron, yew, cedar, blueberry wood, and lilac. Cherry is a favorite. I love the look of it polished up — the color there is a nice dark-light contrast. I think about the marks on the surface — they really have appeal for me.”
In addition to the founders’ work, Close Quarters has begun selling other local makers goods in the shop, and it’s evolving into a local salon. Through the collective the artists can sell directly to the consumer, but the shop also allows them to advertise their other services: classes, workshops, and commissions, which, Pitman acknowledges helps them “make it as a maker.”
Beaux Biens is a store mostly for men, but it could also be for women who love really well-made stuff. It’s also the anchor store for Maine Mountain Moccasins, true moccasin-style shoes made — and hand sewn — in Lewiston, Maine, and designed by Beaux Biens owner Dan Heselton.
Heselton’s story is as “Made in the USA” as his footwear line. Heselton grew up in Haverhill and was playing in a grunge-punk band by sixteen. By the time he was seventeen, Guns Up was touring the country. This hard-hitting, screaming, slam-dancing, primal-but-lyrical band had fans everywhere. They still do.
“I didn’t go to college,” Heselton, 33, says, “we were so young. That band started when I was 16, and really got going when I was 17 and 18. To be driving around a country at that age, alone — to make enough money from show to show, was amazing. But it got progressively easier to tour. We grew to the point where could have — if we wanted — made a jump to major label. But two of our bandmates had put college off and wanted to do that.”
So, Guns Up paused for college and life. Later Heselton, who had met his future wife, photographer Esther Mathieu, at a Montréal show (“she was the cool girl”) got married. Heselton went to work, first for an importer and then for Timberland, where he began to appreciate what it meant to make beautiful footwear.
“I would take pattern-making classes from a guy at Timberland at 5:30 in the morning, and he would go over all kinds of construction. His theory was that no one in the shoe industry knew how to make a shoe anymore. It was all design. No one understood anymore that putting a shoe together is the most important part.
Heselton got so interested he bought his own industrial sewing machine. A guy in Maine met him in a parking lot with it, and said, “What do you want this thing for? I usually only sell them to old ladies who like to sew.” Heselton explained he was interested in making shoes, and the man said, “You need to meet my friend.” The friend was Bill Herrick, who at that point was one of the last of the Maine shoe stitchers — almost all of the Maine shoe mills had long since failed or left. Herrick was stitching together shoes in his garage and sending them to Japan.
Heselton watched Herrick work for a while, and then said he was interested in trying to go into production himself. Herrick said, “You establish the company and I’ll make the shoes for you.” That company is Maine Mountain Moccasin, based in Lewiston, Maine, where shoe factories once made the city rich. Including Herrick, the company has six full-time and four part time employees who hand sew.
The stitching, the leathers, the heavy-duty quality makes these shoes beautiful goods. Three retailers in Los Angeles sell Maine Mountain shoes, but Beaux Biens, about a quarter mile from Heselton’s home with Mathieu — and now their two young sons — serves as the anchor store. Beaux Biens also sells a number of curated lines for men — caps, socks, shirts, tees, and leather wallets made by Gloucester craftsman Benjamin Bott.
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Heselton and the Close Quarters makers originally had adjacent shops in Dock Square in Rockport. When Close Quarters decided to make the move away from downtown to Whistlestop Mall, Heselton saw the genius in it: a community of makers in one spot — with parking. Lots and lots of parking.
“It’s great to have something in Rockport that’s not downtown and tourist based,” says Heselton. “It makes sense to have something in Rockport that suggests some longevity. From the quality of the product, whether it’s a cup of coffee or a $400 pair of boots, I think there is something discerning happening here,” he says about the Whistlestop group. “There’s knowledge and care that has gone into every shop here. That quality-over-quantity ethos is well represented.”
As Main Street businesses struggle with higher rents, less parking, and the crushing impact of online shopping, it’s inspiring to see creative workarounds and new entrepreneurs who find ways to remain brick-and-mortar, to include values like community and sustainability in their business models, and to see the commercial possibilities of our tired or overlooked corners.
The Weekends at Whistlestop makers are betting on small and local to rise again.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York.