There is so much to be thankful for on Shelter Island: it’s untouched, natural beauty and the dreamy energy it exudes. The dull hum and gentle sway of the ferry you must take to enter washes out the energy, noise and odiousness of New York City, where a lot of it’s part-time residents hail from.
Upon arrival, you feel as if you have stepped back in time. There is nothing to attest to the fact that you are in the 21st century- there’s no McDonald’s, Walmart or Starbucks. Everyone relies on small, local businesses much like life was back in the 1940’s and 50’s. There is one hardware store, one pharmacy, one diner and one supermarket. The closest thing the island has to a Target is Jack’s Marine which is part hardware store, toy store, art supply store and fishing store and Bliss Department store which sells Shelter Island logo’d clothing, flip flops, sunglasses, hats and toiletries. The rest are small mom and pop businesses that run restaurants, cafes, a pilates studio, a bookstore, plant nurseries, vintage furniture stores, and small hotels and bed and breakfasts. The Island prides itself on being the un-Hamptons: unpretentious, laid back and traffic free but, it’s charm is what attracts people. My friend and recent first time Shelter Island visitor said, “being on Shelter Island feels like you are on a permanent vacation” and wondered how anyone got anything accomplished.
For most of the year, Shelter Island is a small community of approximately 2,400 people on 12.5 square miles of land. The population swells 5-6 times in the summertime so businesses make the majority of their income in the summer months catering to the part-time residents and tourists. Several businesses are open only from Memorial through Labor Day. When Covid-19 caused schools to shutter and NYC to shut down in March hoards of people flocked to Shelter Island to literally shelter in place. This created a boon for the island during what are normally slow months but it also created a complicated situation for those who rely on foreign imports and summer workers. Those who come to work for the season on a J-1 visas were unable to travel and access to key ingredients and supplies were interrupted.
Marie Eiffel runs a cafe/food market with her partner Jason Penney called Marie Eiffel Market that is normally open from April through the end of December. Eiffel also co-owns a separate clothing and interior store, Simm’s, with interior and furniture designer Cristina Peffer. The clothing store is open only for the summer season. Because of the pandemic and the influx of people on the island, Eiffel opened up the Market in March to offer prepared meals and takeout food. She and Penney soon found themselves working around the clock. Waking at 5am and working until 9pm seven days a week. They eventually closed the Market on Tuesday’s to give their staff a break but Eiffel and Penney still work every day, receiving and unpacking deliveries, placing orders and cooking food.
Making the most of a bad situation was what brought Eiffel to Shelter Island. In 2002, she suffered a massive car accident on the Long Island Expressway that caused her car to roll several times and put her in the hospital for two years. When she got out, she was homeless, broke and still mentally and physically suffering from the accident. By 2005, she was living in a garage in Sag Harbor and working at Pierre’s Restaurant in Bridgehampton. When a friend put her in touch with a dry cleaner who had an attic full of clothes that were abandoned by customers, it inspired her to open her first store, a tiny shop at 21 North Ferry Road where Fallen Angel Antiques exits today. Renowned antique dealer Amy Perlin lent her high end furniture on consignment to add to the men’s shirts and women’s dresses from the dry cleaner.
The site was not conducive to foot traffic and she had trouble staying in business. Luckily, a local wealthy benefactor would come every Sunday night and make up for her loss to keep her in business. In 2007, she moved to Shelter Island full-time and in 2008 she moved the store to Shelter Island Heights.
The idea to create her own clothing designs started when a friend invited her on holiday to the Spanish island Formentera. There she met Daisy Matthieu at a small clothing boutique and the two struck up a deal where Matthieu would ship Eiffel her old inventory. After a few years of this arrangement they planned to meet in New Delhi but Matthieu developed cancer and was unable to come so Eiffel roamed the Hippie neighborhood of Paharganj and started making her own designs with local factories.
Sourcing factories caused her to witness child labor with children as young as 8 years old. Once she called the police but realized they were complicit so she started demanding factory tours and would sometimes show up unannounced. Eiffel went through several factories before she found ones with good working conditions. The only problem was they were 2-3 times as expensive. “It’s impossible to make something for $5 and have it be fair trade. Someone is paying with their life”.
To ship from India to the US requires a 20% fee on top of the cost of the item. So if something costs $5 to make, there’s no way they can be selling it for less than $25. So how can fast fashion brands sell things for less than $20? “Someone’s not getting paid”. Instead, Eiffel works with small factories who do hand looming and hand stitching. Hand loomed fabric, also called khadi, has an important role in the history of India. Mahatma Gandhi promoted hand looming in the 1920’s in order to support their self-determination. The Khadi Movement called for a boycott of British cotton goods and encouraged Indians to make their own homespun cotton textile, khadi, which became an important symbol of Indian Independence.
Working with factories where workers are paid a fair, living wage and use traditional, artisanal techniques “requires you to be patient, work in advance cause they need more lead time to fill orders, and have the money up front”. Eiffel says there is a lack of awareness about how our clothing is made and Eiffel thinks we should boycott companies who cut corners with safety, pay and the environment to increase their profits. Unfortunately, fast fashion brands have distorted our perspective on the true cost of manufacturing. Eiffel’s growing collection of organic, hand woven, fair trade items are more expensive but they save water, don’t pollute the planet or rely on exploitation. Maybe not such a big price to pay when you look at the big picture? Her commitment to fairness extends to the local economy as well. While most companies are laying off workers, Eiffel gave her employees a raise because they are working so hard.
When an article in the Shelter Island Gazette announced that Eiffel was giving up her lease because she didn’t think she would make enough money to cover her expenses some of her customers started a Go Fund Me campaign to help raise money. The shortage of staff and supplies that plagued her at the beginning of the pandemic has been remedied to a certain extent. She has hired local teenagers to work the registers and coffee makers and the ingredients for her incredible gluten free bread has finally become available. Thank god! But it remains to be seen if the Go Fund Me campaign and her summer profits will be enough to keep her in business. August is typically the month when her profit is made.
The cost of doing business on a small island with a seasonal population is high but having access to local, quality businesses is priceless.