Knitting a Life in Bath
A conversation with Halcyon Blake, owner and founder of Halcyon Yarn.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Tucked practically underneath the overpass that whisks travelers through Bath sits a nondescript grey building with the words “Halcyon Yarn” painted in fading letters on its facade. But don’t let the exterior fool you. For many Bath visitors, Halcyon Blake’s thirty-nine-year-old business is a destination in itself. Whether they’re there to grab a few dozen skeins of the 114 different types of yarn that Blake sells or to take one of the hundred different knitting courses offered here, these knitters all feed off the enthusiasm that this admitted transplant from Colorado has infused into her store.
And she says she couldn’t have done it anywhere except Bath, Maine.
How long have you been in Bath?
I’ve been here since 1981, when we moved from Denver.
Why did you choose Bath?
My husband at the time wanted to be near the ocean, and some friends suggested we look at Bath and Rockport. We found our building in Down East, and when we came to look at it, we fell in love with it. We were looking for a building with space for the business, but also with an apartment for us and rental space to help with expenses. This building, which is about 15,000 square feet, fit the bill. Of course, we spent about three times as much as the purchase price renovating it!
What is the history of this building?
It is known as the Mikelsky building, and it was a pants factory, and had also been a furniture warehouse. When we bought it, it had been empty for thirty years or so.
How has your business grown since moving to Bath?
We had no employees when we began. Now we have about eighteen. In Denver, we were about 15 percent mail order, but when we moved here we went to 100 percent mail order and were only open two hours a week. Now, though, we’re open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. We close on Sundays in the winter, but we’re open noon to 3:30 p.m. on Sundays April through December.
How does your walk-in business compare to mail order and Internet sales?
They’re getting pretty close. In our experience mail order and telephone sales are generally declining, where the Internet and in-store sales are increasing. In-store is approximately 25 percent of our business now, the Internet is about 35 percent, telephone 20 percent, and mail, fax, freight, and the other types make up the rest.
We feel like mail order and telephone sales are part of the Internet — it’s all interrelated in that they feed each other. We feel like we need all of them. My feeling is that we’ll see those trends continue, but it’ll be a long time before we abandon any one of them.
How have you weathered this economic recession?
It’s affected us the way most recessions have — our business has gone up. Cocooning-type activities tend to be reverse-cyclical, since people tend to like being at home, instead of being away, during a recession. It feels more justifiable to spend some money on yarn because it’s an investment more than it’s just money down a rat hole.
Is any of your yarn from Maine?
We use three different Maine yarn manufacturers: Jagger Brothers in Springvale, Bartlett in Harmony, and Swans Island in Northport. In total, we purchase yarn, equipment, and supplies from thirty-nine Maine businesses.
What else besides yarn do you offer?
We have fibers, books and magazines and dvds, and spinning wheels and spindles and looms and shuttles and rug hooks. Basically we have all the equipment for everything we represent. We don’t sell finished goods, because for that you’re targeting a different market.
Can you give us an idea of the size of your business today?
We do around two million dollars in revenue, and when we do a mailing, we send out about thirty thousand catalogs.
How far do people come to visit your store?
They come from all over the place. Primarily New England, but we also get people on vacation from California, Alaska, England, Texas, Florida. And, yes, it’s 95 percent women. The men, they go to the maritime museum, and that’s one of the real benefits of being in Bath — there’s so much to do. We tell people to come, take a class, and your husband can go to the museum or take your kids to the beach at Popham.
What kind of a reception did you get when you moved here?
Bath has always been a town that welcomes newcomers, and we found that we were quickly asked to join a bunch of committees.
Is your family part of the business?
I have a daughter and my husband, Will, has a daughter, and neither of them has an interest in taking over the business. In terms of an exit strategy, we don’t have one yet. But I feel very fortunate that my daughter has a graphic design company, Snow Park Design, here in town because she’s been able to take up a lot of the creative stuff that I have to do.
How do you see Bath Iron Works benefiting Bath?
I think we’re lucky to have them. Just from the point of view of activity, of people walking around. Also, I think it gives Bath a realness, a reality, that gives us variety.
What changes do you see in store for Bath this year?
What the Downtown Merchants Association and Main Street Bath have done is position us to take off more as a destination. I think we’re going to finally get people to recognize that we’re here. It used to be that Bath was a little secret.
What do you think is Bath’s biggest draw?
I think it’s the association with ships and with boating. Whether it’s BIW or the maritime museum, there’s always that subliminal association.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Bath today?
Managing the growth that becoming a destination will bring — traffic, and that sort of thing — will be the biggest challenge. If we get too busy, we could price businesses out of the market.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro