The Hipster Honchos: Pete and Kim Erskine

Trade, Transportation, and Utilities

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Mark Fleming

The Trade, Transportation, and Utilities sector is dominated by sales jobs of all kinds — including traveling salesmen, bricks and mortar retailers, and catalogue models. Nearly 40 percent of this category’s 123,087 jobs are in sales.

The first thing a visitor notices about the Newcastle headquarters of Mexicali Blues is that it smells like a Himalayan monastery. The scent comes from a sage-like Indian incense called nag champa, crates of which are stacked alongside bins of Tibetan prayer flags and woven Baja hoodies in the building’s tidy, attached warehouse. A perennial bestseller, nag champa is also a noticeable olfactory presence in all six Mexicali Blues retail locations, and online customers often marvel that the import retailer manages to infuse every package with “that authentic store smell.” In truth, of course, the smell would be difficult to keep out.

An air of authenticity clings to all things Mexicali, which celebrates its 25th year in business this March. From humble beginnings as an erratically stocked, impulsively managed Portland curio shop, Mexicali Blues has slowly evolved into the Renys of tie-dyes and tapestries — a Maine success story built on chummy relationships with customers and the against-the-grain vision of its founders. When Maryland-native Pete Erskine opened the bohemian emporium with a frat brother in 1988, he was a recent college grad with just three goals: to have fun, indulge his passion for travel, and eventually settle in the Pemaquid peninsula town of South Bristol, where his family spent summers all his life. Selling globally sourced jewelry, clothing, and trinkets out of the Old Port seemed like a good way to accomplish all three. The notion that he was embarking on a decades-long career in business never crossed his mind.

“I’d read James Michener’s book The Drifters in high school,” explains Erskine, now forty-nine, invoking the 1971 classic about disaffected, nomadic youth. “After that, I figured I’d just be a backpacking hipster.”

Shaggy-haired and bearded, with a glass-beaded necklace around his throat, Pete still looks more hipster than honcho. So does his wife, Kim Erskine, a pretty 46-year-old who grew up in Hollis and first met Pete when she came into the store to ask his business partner for a date. The pair bought out the partner in 1990 and married a year later. Sitting around a conference table in their boardroom attire of fleeces and jeans, the Erskines laugh, remembering the old days.

Mexicali’s first Christmas basically wiped out its initial inventory, purchased during a freewheeling road trip through Mexico and Guatemala. At the time, the Grateful Dead was enjoying a resurgence, and entrepreneurial Deadheads regularly stopped by, peddling artisan and imported wares much like Pete had picked up down south. The Erskines were fans of the band (the store is named for the 1972 twangy Dead staple), so for much of the nineties, they doubled-down on Deadhead bric-a-brac, doing a brisk business in dancing-bear undies and Jerry Gar-Chia Pets. Mexicali became a hangout for the young and crunchy, and the attitude towards business was relaxed. The Erskines sometimes closed up shop when they figured they’d sold enough for the day. Without any place to sort new merchandise, they simply had their shipments delivered to the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

Nonetheless, Mexicali Blues was a hit. In its first year, the store made $44,000 in sales — not bad for a place that sold mostly beads and incense holders. No one took home a salary at first (Pete sold real estate on the side), so all the profits went back into the store. Sales kept growing, and, in 1992, the Erskines opened a second shop in downtown Boothbay, which then moved to Damariscotta the following year. The new store put them one step closer to life in South Bristol, but, in retrospect, both admit that the location was counterintuitive.

“Here was the oldest county in the oldest state in the nation,” says Pete, “and we were going there to open up a hippie shop. Huh?”

Like many a nineties hippie, however, Mexicali Blues has done some growing up over the last decade-plus. The Erskines eased back on the Deadhead merchandise (though Mexicali still carries some Grateful goods) and started making annual buying trips to Thailand, Nepal, India, and Latin America. There, in crowded street markets and exotic bodegas, they developed Mexicali’s modern ethos. Today’s Mexicali Blues imports all of its own goods, handpicked by the Erskines, with no wholesalers or middlemen involved, and are sold with an emphasis on fair pricing. Pete and Kim have relationships with artisans going back sixteen years, and they personally visit their vendors’ workshops when they travel, looking out for happy employees.

What’s more, Mexicali’s style has evolved. The store now carries more apparel, and the look is less explicitly counterculture than “functional granola” — think batik yoga pants, alpaca sweaters, and a dress that can be worn six different ways.

“It used to be that a middle-aged person would come in and say, ‘Oh, I’m only here for my daughter!’ ” Pete remembers.

“But that’s changed now,” says Kim. “Those thirty-to-fifty-year-old women are the bulk of our customers.”

The Erskines have grown up a bit, too. For starters, they had three kids, who enjoyed enviable childhoods tagging along on their parents’ business trips. Kim joined the school board. More importantly, the family made it to South Bristol in 1999. The Erskines built a wood-shingled, cottage-style home on land once owned by Pete’s grandparents, overlooking the quiet waters of Christmas Cove.

In the midst of the economic downturn, Mexicali Blues has thrived, opening four new locations since 2004 in Raymond, Freeport, Portland, and Bangor. The company currently employs more than eighty people, including a CEO brought on in 2005, and last year, the one-time hippie shop cleared around $4.5 million in sales. So what’s fueling Maine’s seemingly insatiable market for peasant skirts and paper lanterns? Pete and Kim attribute a lot of the store’s cachet to its indie cred (similar chain stores have opened and folded during Mexicali’s gradual ascendancy). They also praise their in-store staff members, who (as regular shoppers will attest) tend to be both enthusiastic about the products and genuine exemplars of the mellow Mexicali vibe. At rock bottom, though, the secret of the store’s success may be as simple as its low pricing, made possible by the Erskines’ direct-purchasing habits.

“It’s unique, and it’s affordable,” says Pete. “Those are two simple things that go a long way.”

Mexicali’s next great frontier is the Web. Online sales grew by 125 percent in 2011, and the company now ships more orders outside of Maine than it does around the state. A fun experiment is to Google the phrase “baja hoodie” and note the prominent position of Mexicali Blues among your search results. Then consider that Maine is literally as far from Baja as a person can get in the continental United States. Cyberspace is gradually turning Mexicali Blues into a national brand. All the same, don’t expect to see strip-mall franchises anytime soon.

“We don’t want to be in malls or any of that,” says Pete. “We like the community-minded thing, being downtown. It’s important to us where we buy, and it’s important to us where we sell.”

Mexicali Blues opens its new flagship store on Route 1 in Newcastle this summer, a four-thousand-square-foot, Balinese-inspired retail temple. The site is under construction, but if you drive past with your windows down, you can almost smell the nag champa already.

From our March 2013 issue, read more unexpected ways that Mainers are making a living in the Pine Tree State.