Pine Tree State store sells only American-made products — and is planning an online expansion.
Garry Conklin and Mary Johnston left the small village of Cambridge, N.Y. in 2010 with one goal in mind: Open a retail store that sold products exclusively Made in America.
The husband and wife team ended up in Belfast, Maine, a quaint city of less than 7,000 people located at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River estuary on Penobscot Bay. Once a shipbuilding town, Belfast continues to be an historic city rife with old buildings.
Johnston had an interior design business in New York where she routinely sourced American-made products to supply her clients. Conklin had a long career in retail at Home Depot where he watched the decline of Made in America merchandise on the store shelves.
Conklin told his wife, “we should do a store of things made in America. How hard would that be?”
“Well it’s not actually hard,” Johnston said. “It’s impossible.”
It didn’t turn out to be that impossible. In June, Conklin’s Maine Mercantile celebrated its fifth anniversary.
“A lot of people don’t get why American made is so important,” Johnston said. “I try not to be political, but it’s about quality and it is about American jobs.”
Their store in Belfast houses Johnston’s interior design firm as well as the Made in America retail store.
“Even though we are so small, I counted one day and between our vendors, approximately 800 to 1,000 employees are working directly with our vendors,” Johnston said. “They are full-time employees with benefits whose products are sold in Garry’s store.”
L.L. Bean was famous for dominating the Made in America market in Maine, but today most of its products are manufactured offshore. But there is still the demand for Made in Maine and Made in America products.
“Now, with a five-year run, I don’t think we’ve ever had to refund anything. We may have exchanged something for a color, something that was a gift, but I don’t think we’ve done more than one or two returns. I think that actually just speaks well of the quality American products.” Mary Johnston, Conklin's Maine Mercantile
At Conklin’s Maine Mercantile, customers can find hand-carved wooden spoons, Danforth Pewter items, Salmon Falls Stoneware pottery, Myrtlewood Baskets, Liberty Tabletop flatware and hundreds of other items made right here in America.
The store features items by local Maine artisans, but mostly relies on American-made manufacturers because the local designers struggle to keep up with the demand for their products.
“We started with a lot of local crafts people in the beginning but now we have only about five or six from Maine,” said Johnston. “As we got busier and had more demand on our inventory, they couldn’t keep up.
“So we decided to pick up American-made manufacturing plants, which also means they have employees, they have salaries and benefits and I thought we needed to buy from manufacturing companies.”
One of the store’s vendors is Best Manufacturers in Oregon, which makes small restaurant equipment.
“They operate on a model where they build to order. So they don’t stock any products but for the most part they manufacture to order and will turn a product around in a maximum of two weeks,” Johnston said. “It’s not like China. We talk to a person on the phone and we can do small quantities, especially when we take on a vendor and try out a few items. It makes a huge difference.”
When Conklin and Johnston opened the store in 2011 they had a small inventory of products from New England vendors. They’ve since reached out to vendors throughout the United States, making sure the products are 100 percent American-made.
“It’s been really interesting,” Johnston said. “We find these people that are committed to the U.S.A. as much as we are,” Johnston continued. “We ask them what parts of your product are made in the U.S. They tell us if it’s available in the U.S., they use U.S. materials. That’s been a real pleasant surprise.”
The American vendors that supply Conklin’s Maine Mercantile are concerned about the quality of their manufactured products. That is why Conklin and Johnston search for durable goods.
“If there is a problem with a product, the vendors want it back because they want to see what the problem was,” Johnston said. “So there is a real consciousness that you know you couldn’t do with overseas products because of the logistics. It’s all about quality.
“Now, with a five-year run, I don’t think we’ve ever had to refund anything. We may have exchanged something for a color, something that was a gift, but I don’t think we’ve done more than one or two returns. I think that actually just speaks well of the quality American products.”
Conklin’s Maine Mercantile isn’t alone in the Made in America business, as retail and online stores featuring Made in America products have caught on with consumers. Mark Andol opened his first Made in America Store outside of Buffalo, N.Y. less than six years ago, for example, and now has seven retail outlets and a thriving online business.
At Conklin’s Maine Mercantile, the majority of business is through the retail outlet. You can order products you see online, but you have to call the store to order a shipment. That will change in the next few weeks as Johnston adds a shopping cart to the website for easier purchases.
“When we go online with the shopping cart we will be competing against the big boys like Wayfair, which has opened in Bangor,” Johnston said. “Wayfair is a clearing house for Chinese junk. We’re hoping people will understand our products are American-made and why that’s so much better.”