Retailers make themselves at home in downtown Manchester

Visitors from faraway places like Shanghai, China, or Cambridge, Mass., might want to get the flavor of New Hampshire by visiting the mountains, the lakes, the Seacoast and the Monadnock Region. Or they could save time and money by visiting the New England Sampler in Manchester.

“I do get people who come into New Hampshire from all around the world,” says Barbara Potvin, owner of the specialty shop at 42 Hanover St. in the heart of downtown Manchester. “I’ve had people from Sweden, Australia, Germany come in.” Some are overnight guests at the Radisson hotel downtown and many are travelers who have landed at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. When they leave, the chances are excellent they will take something of New Hampshire back with them, she says.

“My store is about 80 percent New Hampshire-made,” says Potvin, describing her inventory. “All of it is made and designed in New England.”

That includes Granite State staples like maple syrup from Fuller’s Sugarhouse in Lancaster and Salmon Falls Pottery in Dover and Great Bay Pottery in North Hampton. The visitor will find wines from Jewell Towne Vineyard in South Hampton and White Mountain Coffee from Concord. There also are pancake mixes, a variety of jams and jellies and other treats for the taste buds from Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, or Portsmouth’s the Lollipop Tree.

“I like food,” says Potvin. “You come see my store, you’ll see I like food.”

The store also features a variety of non-edibles, such as New Hampshire post cards, calendars and magnets. The items are not only popular with visitors to Manchester, but also with local residents who want to bring samples of New Hampshire and New England with them when they visit other parts of the country or world.

“Students in the People to People program want to bring something to the host families. Also on the college level, there will be people going for an internship in Germany, let’s say. Or even people going to visit family members in Texas or California, or anywhere.”

Ironically, it’s the strictly regional flavor that contributes to the universal appeal.

“The best thing I ever did was to make the store New Hampshire-made and New England-made,” says Potvin. “I have a very loyal customer base that comes back time and again every time they need a gift for anything from a housewarming to a wedding to sending something to friends who’ve just moved out of town.”

Corporate customers also buy gift baskets to send to their clients or prospects. Potvin takes care of the packaging and the mailing.

“Except for the weather, it’s been great,” she says of the business in recent months.

Potvin acknowledges that her business has not yet made it into the black but is making progress toward that goal.

The store is gaining recognition, having won three Pride of New England Awards at the Boston Gift Show last year for customer service, creative displays and community involvement.

She likes the downtown location and attractive façade of the stores in the Theater District on Hanover Street.

“I have great neighbors and it’s a real nice community feel,” she says.

More retail options?

One of those neighbors is Runner’s Alley, right next door, a store dedicated to joggers.

The store had a memorable date for its opening – Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

“It was a little slower start than I thought it would be because we had established ourselves on the Seacoast,” says owner Jeanine Sylvester, who had opened her other store, the Runner’s Alley in Portsmouth four years earlier. But business has picked up noticeably over the past 6-1/2 years, she says. “People have really supported us — the high schools, the colleges, the running clubs. I think the running community as a whole is excited to have a running store here.”

Sylvester, a former administrator at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, started Runner’s Alley “on kind of whim” after she found a store dedicated to runners while on a business trip to Denver with her husband Scott. The specialty store was dedicated to making sure every customer got the shoe that was just the right fit.

“They looked at your foot and fit you for a shoe,” she said. “It was one of those trips where you get back on the plane and say, ‘Gee, I wonder if I could do something like that?’”

Sylvester, who says she likes her store’s downtown Manchester location, wouldn’t be happy in a mall.

“I like the flexibility,” she says. “I can make my own hours. And I like to be able to open my front door and get some fresh air.”

She believes Manchester’s downtown area still has a lot of unrealized potential.

“When I came here, there was a lot of excitement about downtown Manchester taking on a new look, and it has. But it’s been slower than I’d like to see it. I’d like to see a lot more retail stores to make downtown really thrive. So far we haven’t seen an influx of retail, it’s been mostly restaurants. So for people to say, ‘Let’s go shopping in downtown Manchester,’ we’re really not giving them a whole lot of options.”

‘More character’

A downtown furniture store might seem like a thing of the past to some Queen City residents, but the Chair Gallery has prospered there since it opened in December of 2000.

The new business found plenty of room to grow in the building that housed McQuaid’s — the family-owned department store that for decades was the retail anchor of downtown Manchester establishment.

Chair Gallery has gone through several expansions in the last seven and a half years, growing from its original 2,000 square feet to a little over 12,000 square feet today. The store features not only chairs, but sofas, bedroom sets and a variety of furniture supplies for the home and home office. (It also offers an impressive variety of bar stools, 250 in all.)

“The store started as my hobby,” says Colombian native Maurico Quiroga, who started the business with his wife, former WZID news director Sarah Bateman.

“My wife and I decided to quit our other careers to do something different for a living and work together,” says Quiroga, the owner of a former financial services business. The business is still growing, with sales up by 20 percent last year, says Quiroga.

Developments in the city and especially downtown during the current decade have helped revitalize the central business district, he says.

“The Verizon (Wireless Arena) opened up, Radisson came to town (replacing the Holiday Inn), bringing in more people from other cities and other states. The expansion of the airport has helped a lot,” he says.

The Chair Gallery also has been finding customers from afar.

“We have delivered furniture to Hawaii, we’ve sent furniture to people in Washington state,” says Quiroga. “We cater to people in Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, even as far as New York with our products.” And being in the middle of the city suits him fine.

“It adds more character to our store, being downtown, especially in an historic building like this. A lot of new restaurants have opened up their doors, a lot of people walking around. It’s a nice feeling to be around here, rather than in a mall or off by myself.”

While some of the new retail businesses downtown have been finding success in reaching out to customers from around the country or across the world, Sylvester at Runner’s Alley, would like to see more stores that will draw business from the city’s own suburbs.

“There are a lot of bedroom communities with a lot of money to spend if we give people a reason to come downtown,” she says.