It may look like a gift shop. But the nonprofit Museum Shop at Discover Portsmouth is much more than meets the eye. It’s also a locally-focused bookshop, a community resource, and an educational outreach vehicle.
“Unlike most shopping experiences,” says shop manager Cynthia Novotny, “we are mission driven. That means everything we sell here is related to what the Portsmouth Historical Society does. The Society promotes local arts, history and culture--and so do we.”
It’s a bold assignment for the 10 Middle St. shop that connects two historic brick buildings, the site of the former city library. What began a decade ago as a small display of souvenir items has blossomed into a unique showcase of jewelry and apparel from local artists and craftsmen, plus fun items for kids, books, artwork, and Portsmouth-themed keepsakes.
Nothing on these shelves is here by chance. The expanding book section, for instance, is arguably the best selection of titles about Portsmouth history available and features local authors. Many of the titles were published by the Society itself. This year’s catalog of American painter Gertrude Fiske, for example, was created to accompany the major exhibition at Discover Portsmouth, for which Novotny also produced a boxed set of specialty notecards featuring paintings by the artist.
This year the Portsmouth Marine Society Press, operated by the Society, also released Lives of Consequence, a groundbreaking study of local black history. Other books produced in-house include work by painters Edmund Tarbell and Wendy Turner, an illustrated study of Portsmouth-made furniture, and an updated history of the Isles of Shoals-- all created expressly for the Museum Shop.
“I knew the shop had potential,” says manager Novotny. “It’s a great open space in a familiar building in the heart of the city. This year we added new lighting and new product lines, and we’re just a couple blocks from the brand new parking garage.”
Novotny brings a lifetime of experience to selecting the shop inventory. She began her career in the fashion industry. She worked as a department store buyer at the height of the shopping mall era, then managed small stores in a maritime museum and a toy museum before coming to Portsmouth.
“Museum stores are a very different niche,” she says. “We’re not a hard sell. The museum galleries and education programs offer an experience to every visitor. The Museum Shop enhances that experience by offering items visitors can take home, learn from, and treasure. And our constantly changing museum exhibitions and programs mandate a fascinating flow of new merchandise. You might say --every product tells a story.”
Every museum store is an important source of revenue for the nonprofit it serves. That is especially critical, the manager points out, since many Discover Portsmouth programs are free to the public or offered at a nominal fee. They include lectures, book signings, gallery shows, monthly Art Round Town events, historic walking tours, plus special events for kids like “Sketching in the Gallery” and the Annual Gingerbread House Contest.
Museum purchases also support the upkeep of the 1758 John Paul Jones House Museum and garden next door, its extensive collection of Portsmouth artifacts as well as the 1810-era city-owned Discover Portsmouth facility and its welcome center that serves tens of thousands of Portsmouth visitors annually.
And like for all gift shops, Novotny points out, the holiday shopping season can be a “make or break” time financially. “As big as online shopping has become, there are real benefits to seeing the merchandise in person, being able to touch it and talk about it with a store staff member of volunteer – not to mention the pleasure of the festive atmosphere. We get to connect with everyone enjoying the gingerbread contest and provide them a great gift idea at the same time.”
This year the Portsmouth Historical Society’s four changing galleries focused on the masterful artwork of local women painters. The year's final exhibition highlights the work of primitive folk artist Rose Labrie and the shop is carrying a puzzle of one of Labrie’s winter scene paintings. The Museum Shop, all exhibitions, and Discover Portsmouth close December 23 and re-open in the spring of 2019.
It’s important to take a break, Novotny concludes. The winter offers a “breathing time” to analyze sales, visit other museum stores, catch a few trade shows, and restock shelves with a whole new array of items that will reflect next year’s exhibits and continue to tell Portsmouth stories.
Discover Portsmouth is open daily, except Thanksgiving, at 10 Middle St. from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information on holiday exhibitions, events, donations, and memberships please call 603-436-8433 or visit PortsmouthHistory.org online. Members receive a discount on selected items in the Museum Shop.