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She Sells Seashells

Michael McLaughlin Susan Black knows all about longing for people and places left behind. Although she lives in Colorado now, part of her heart will always be on Nantucket. “Nantucket is my second home,” says Black, who moved to Boulder year-round several years ago after living there on and off for decades. The 51-year-old explains that a tragedy brought her to Colorado full-time. “I have a niece and nephew there who I love dearly. They are my brother’s children­—he passed away nine years ago,” she says.

It seems appropriate, somehow, that Black’s business­ should be based on a historic longing of travelers for treasured places. She sells Nantucket Sailors’ Valentine kits on-line and in specialty shops. When you type Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits into a Google search, her company, www.nantucketsailorsvalentinekits.com, appears first at the top of the page.

For several years, Black lived on Nantucket, having come to the island for the first time as a twenty-something. Later on in life, she moved to the island year-round and eventually became a substitute teacher at the Cyrus Pierce Middle School.

Black’s first venture in to Nantucket crafts started when she taught herself to make Nantucket baskets. Fascinated by the iconic island craft that is still very much in vogue today, she studied the baskets before diving into the difficult, time-consuming process of creating a basket from scratch. “I taught myself to make the Nantucket baskets and I made a bunch of them for fun,” says Black, who obviously has a talent for focusing in on a project and sticking to it despite setbacks and the occasional failure. “When the baskets were done, I brought them to the island’s Folk Art Fair.”

Life August 2010 An impressed relative commissioned Black to create a 30-inch basket for a coffee table. “It was quite a project,” says Black. “I couldn’t find anyone on the island to make me the mold I wanted and surprisingly, I found someone in Colorado to make me the mold. But I made the basket handles and the rims by myself, finding the wood, soaking it, and bending it into shape.”

It is obvious that this is a craftsperson with a logical, business-like head on her shoulders. When she is asked if she considers herself a talented person with artistic ability, she laughs. “I’m kind of middle-of-the-road crafty,” says Black. “But I get into something and just kind of do it all the way.”

In 2005, Black was on Nantucket with a friend visiting her two sisters who still live on the island year-round. While showing the friend some of the island’s attractions, including the Nantucket Historical Association’s (NHA) Whaling Museum, Black became enamored of Sailors’ Valentines.

“We went to the NHA’s whaling museum shop,” says Black. “We saw an octagonal cloth covered object and we thought­—gosh, I wonder if this a kit where you can make your own sailors valentines!” The pair quickly realized that they were looking at a book by avid sailors’ valentine collector, John Fondas. Still, the chance encounter sparked an idea for a new business. “I turned to Donna and said with your art background and my business and art background ­—why don’t we start a sailors’ valentines kit business?”

After a month of careful research, including learning about the sizes and sources for shells around the world, the best wood and size for a glass-fronted box, the intricacies of packaging and shipping the kits, and the designs that have endured since homesick sailors first crafted valentines for their loved ones, Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits was born.

Black explains there are a handful of traditional sailors’ valentines themes usually seen at such places as the Sanibel, Florida annual Shell Fair, where elaborate sailors’ valentines are on display. “The designs really haven’t changed all that much,” says Black. “There is usually an all-white valentine as well as ones with a star theme, a heart theme, one with a pink rosette in the center; these are your traditional sailors valentines’ themes. Also, many valentines have a photo at the center, or a piece of scrimshaw.”

Michael McLaughlin Working with her friend who is a graphic artist, Black created the designs, composed an easy-to-follow instruction book, ordered shells from around the world, and at the end of 2005, launched her kits at the Nantucket Christmas Stroll Craft Fair. She quickly realized that although each of her kits contains dozens of carefully separated shells, a beautiful hand-crafted octagonal wooden shadow box with a glass front (8 3/4 inches) and brass hinges, two carefully written instruction books, glue, and more, the price tag was a little high for off-the-street customers.

“It’s true that the kits are a little pricey—$125.00 each,” says Black. “We realized that we probably weren’t going to sell many at craft fairs­. So we turned to one or two high-end shops—and the Internet.” It was on the Internet that Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits began to take off in the company’s second year of business—and since then, sales have doubled every single year. “I think that’s pretty encouraging for the kind of business we are in—a really specialized business,” says Black, who notes that since 2006, she has been the sole owner of the business.

Over the years, Black has refined her product carefully, evaluating what works and what doesn’t and encouraging customers to give her honest feedback. On her easy-to-navigate web-site, quotes from happy customers from around the world are testament to the company’s success. The kits are also sold at the Leslie Linsley shops on Nantucket and on Charles Street in Boston. Black is also introducing a line of classy, yet reasonably-priced paperweights ($20) with nautical themes in 2010.
When she is asked what her ultimate wish is for her company, Black laughs. “Well, to be honest, when I started this business my true goal was to build something like this—and then sell it,” says Black. “But you know, I am having such fun with this that I’m just going to keep going. I’m just enjoying running this great home-based business, where I count seashells for a living in the Rocky Mountains.”

For information on Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines, go to www.nantucketsailorsvalentinekits.com or call 508 292-3502.

Cape and Islands’ sources for Nantucket Sailors Valentines

Gayle Condit, www.sailorvalentines.com, 508 896-6194. Gayle Condit is an award-winning Cape artisan whose sailors valentines can be purchased at European Traditions Antiques, Nantucket, Chatham Art Gallery, Chatham, Edgartown Scrimshaw Gallery, Edgartown, and Kindred’s, Osterville.

Kindreds
, www.kindredsantiquesandfolkart.com, 845 Main Street, Osterville, 508 420-7390. Kindreds carries sailors valentines by Gayle Condit as well as a wide range of arts and crafts by Cape and Islands’ artisans.

Theresa Labrecque, www.labrecque.com, 774-323-0333. Theresa Labrecque is a talented artist and painter who also designs and sells Nantucket Sailors Valentines. Her work was featured in the 2010 ART of the Cape & Islands, a Cape Cod Life Publication.

Sandy Moran, www.sailorsvalentinestudio.com, 508 362-8410. Sandy Moran, of Yarmouthport, has won numerous awards around the country for her sailors’ valentines, which are sold on Cape Cod and the Islands, including at Osterville’s Oak and Ivory. Moran’s valentines have been featured on PBS and in many national and regional magazines.

Scrimshander Gallery
, www.scrimshandergallery.com, 38 Centre Street, Nantucket, 508- 228-1004. The Scrimshander Gallery is owned by professional scrimshander and artist, Michael Vienneau, who sells completed sailors valentines and also handcrafts scrimshaw centerpieces for sailors valentine construction. The shop also carries model ships, ivory displays and basket tops.

About

Susan Dewey is the associate publisher and editor of Cape Cod LIFE, Cape Cod HOME, and Cape Cod ART. She lives in Centerville on Cape Cod and enjoys gardening, sailing, walking on the beach, gallery hopping, cooking with fresh seafood, and exploring Cape Cod and the Islands from shore to shore.

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