A lot can change in 125 years, but the John Tarr Store demonstrates, as its owner celebrates 125 years in business, that not a lot has to.
A green and white striped awning shades two storefront windows at the Main Street shop. The windows house displays packed with men's shirts, swim shorts, sandals, sneakers and an array of sun hats, fedoras and caps a collector would envy. A model Motif No. 1 is stacked atop the display.
Store owner Bethany Carlson, perfecting the presentation, busies herself refolding rumpled T-shirts printed with sayings such as "Wicked Big Bruins Fan," and arranging them on two outdoor wooden shelves.
Bells jangle as a customer exits the tall double doors and calls out "She's the best," gesturing toward Carlson.
Another frequent customer, strolling by, takes the opportunity to playfully scold Carlson.
"Bethany, I didn't win that raffle," he yells.
"That raffle" was to celebrate 125 years in business for the store, nearly 40 of which Carlson has spent growing up in, then working in the shop. Carlson drew a winner on the Fourth of July, one of the busiest days of the store's year-round schedule.
Carlson, the store's fourth owner, took over from her father in 2000. When Carlson bought the store, she moved it from its original spot on Main Street to a building further down the street. Before her father, Carlson's grandfather had worked in and bought the store from the estate of its founder, John Tarr himself.
A black and white photo of Carlson and her sister, seated on wooden chairs in front of a mountain of shoe boxes, can still be matched to a spot in the store's shoe section.
Carlson said the store brings memories for many of her customers who tell her how it reminds them of their favorite store way back when. But, the John Tarr Store is also a reminder of Carlson's own childhood, watching "General Hospital" on the television in the back room and waiting for her father to walk her to school.
"I remember walking to Sandy Bay School, holding my father's hand," Carlson says, smiling. "I wish I had more photos of him in here."
Photos or not, there is plenty of evidence in the store of Carlson's father, a man whom faithful patrons are sure to remember.
In a tall Rolodex next to the cash register, Carlson keeps hand-written tabs for customers, just as her father and grandfather did. Ofttimes, mothers call down to the store and tell Carlson they're sending a child to pick up a hat or a pair of shoes or a T-shirt, and she adds it to the family tab, "kind of like the old days," Carlson said.
Carlson's grandfather, who was also the town accountant, kept the store's books, first as an employee and later as owner. On Saturdays in the 1930s, customers would gather in the store to talk local Rockport politics with Town Accountant Dick Carlson.
Bethany Carlson's father continued keeping the books by hand when he took over.
"People would ask my father 'What system do you use,' and my dad was, like, 'a pencil and eraser,'" Carlson said, laughing and reaching over to adjust wool vests hung on a circular rack.
Carlson still keeps computers mostly out of the accounting process, using what she learned at Western New England College in Springfield. Carlson graduated from the business administration program there in 1995, set to take over the family business.
Carlson's business strategy centers around making the customer happy with frequent sales and quality items, she said, reciting her motto: "Fast nickels are better than slow dimes."
Customer satisfaction and reliability are longstanding ideals at the store, sometimes illustrated in unusual ways.
In 1989, for example, Cher came to town to film "Mermaids," and the producer asked Carlson's father to shut down the store and allow the crew to film inside. But he declined the opportunity, saying he had to stay open for his customers.
He met Cher when she graced the store, buying a sweatshirt, according to a 1989 newspaper clipping taped to the storefront display window above the pile of now neatly folded T-shirts.
As the oldest store in downtown Rockport, Carlson says the John Tarr Store lives on because of its Old World charm and simplicity.
"It's a staple, it's a part of history in Rockport," Carlson said, "and people like history."
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or email@example.com.