If it is true that convention is meant to be defied, Elaine Barse could write the book. A top-tier college graduate who chose the life of a ski bum over graduate school in her post-college years, today Ms. Barse owns The Green Room, the popular surf, skate and clothing store on Main street Vineyard Haven.
She was raised in New Haven, Conn. Her parents, both the first in their families to go to college, stressed the importance of a good education and sent their daughter to a private high school. From there, she enrolled at Smith College where she studied English literature. She graduated in 1988, diploma in hand and no idea what to do with it.
She thought about law school and took the exam, but did not study and instead threw in some job applications. “After graduation, I had two job offers,” she said. One was with a head-hunting firm in New York city. The other was selling ads for the Vineyard Gazette. “I had never sold ads before, I had never worked at a newspaper before,” Ms. Barse recalled. “I kept thinking, I should be going to New York and making kajillions. But I knew I was not ready for the high stress of New York.”
She sat perched on a stool behind the counter of her store, which perhaps can best be described as having a split-level personality. Downstairs is a hangout for young skateboarders, where all the gear associated with skating and surfing is sold, while upstairs is a second heaven for Vineyarders who like to shop for nice things but hate the mainland malls. Here hip designer jeans, elegant cashmere sweaters, cozy pajamas, Dansko clogs and Patagonia jackets are all for sale — sometimes at half price.
So as her friends went on to live and work in urban areas or attend graduate school, Ms. Barse moved alone to the Vineyard, where she first visited as a college freshman. She thought it was a short-term thing. But one year turned into two and she was still not ready to leave.
After a few years, Ms. Barse, in her mid-20s by this time, stopped selling ads and took a job as a manager of Peck’s Bad Boy, a surf and skate shop with stores in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, which has since closed. She had no retail or management experience. “I laugh when I think of it,” she said. She now employs three managers and a staff of up to 14 in the summer season. “When I look at hiring people now I think, I would never have hired me!”
Peck’s was open seasonally, so that winter Ms. Barse went to Vermont and worked at a ski resort. “I always wanted to be a ski bum,” she said. “In the beginning, I found myself justifying what I was doing,” she said. “In the beginning, people didn’t think it was a real job. But the best way to get past the insecurity is to be successful.”
Ms. Barse is 41 but she looks 15 years younger. Petite in snug jeans and cowboy boots, her blonde hair tousled, she also has a serious professional demeanor that is evident in the way she works with her staff and customers. And she clearly enjoys the work.
She worked at Peck’s for three years until it went out of business. Owner Neil Peck offered her the Vineyard Haven storefront and encouraged her to open her own business there. Ms. Barse did not have the money then or the experience to open her own store. And she was not convinced it was what she wanted to do. Instead, she took another manager position, this time at LeRoux Clothing. “I started to really learn how a retail business could be run,” she said. “And realized it was what I wanted to do.”
Then she had an idea. With Peck’s closed, there was no place on the Vineyard to buy a skateboard. “I saw the void Neil left here and thought, why not capitalize on that,” she said. She signed a lease for a small space on Spring street and spent the winter of 1993 developing a business plan. She was 27.
As she planned, she worried there might not be a market for a surf and skate shop. “I thought it had reached its peak,” she said. It was about the only concern she had. “I never really thought what would happen if I failed. I was so young, I didn’t really pay attention. I was more concerned with the day-to-day aspect of trying to run my own business.”
The Green Room opened on Memorial Day weekend of 1994. As a woman in a male dominated industry and a first-time business owner, Ms. Barse had to fight to contract with retailers. She catered on weekends to make ends meet the first year and closed in October having done only $120,000 in retail sales. But she had hit on something that she liked. “I still have a picture of the first couple who bought anything,” she said. “I still remember who I sold my first surfboard to.”
The next year, Ms. Barse opened with more lines and stayed open until Christmas. “Even though the first few years were rocky, I never thought of giving up,” she said. Every year, Ms. Barse expanded her product. She stayed open later and later into the season until finally she remained open year-round. In 2000, she hired her first manager and began thinking of ways to grow the business. “We were looking to expand, we were outgrowing the space,” Ms. Barse said. “We were looking to do something different, but Martha’s Vineyard is my life, so what do you do? Do you open a store in another town and risk drawing away from your own clientele? Do you add more lines? How do you expand?”
The answer came in an offer from Ray Rourke, owner of LeRoux Clothing on Main street.
Mr. Rourke asked if she was interested in taking over the space. Ms. Barse jumped at the chance. She made the move in September 2003. Her floor space expanded from 900 to 4,000 square feet. She opened the skate shop downstairs and upstairs began selling items like North Face parkas, Kenneth Cole shoes and Citizens of Humanity jeans. “It was a crash course in a whole new clientele,” she said. “It was very different from the youth-based business I had been running.” The change in location forced Ms. Barse to change her business approach. “There were twice as many staff and twice as much money going through the store. I had to start really looking at this as a business, rather than a second home,” she said.
“The timing worked out perfectly,” she added as she looked around the store, her eyes lingering on photographs of her staff laughing together at beach barbecues, and clients on their skateboards. “I was in my 30s. I wasn’t a kid anymore. If I didn’t take myself seriously, and what was around me, then I would have failed,” she said.
Taking her surroundings seriously has contributed enormously to her success. Ms. Barse values her staff and encourages their creativity. She calls them the Green Room family. As a result, they have stayed, one for over eight years. She also listens to her clients and her community. When she saw Vineyard youth with no place to go after school and no place to skateboard, she helped organize, build and open the Martha’s Vineyard Skate Park across from the high school.
Ever modest, Ms. Barse believes that after four years in the new location, her store is finally coming into its own. “Now, we’re not so much the new kid on the block,” she said. “People make it a destination.” Now again she is turning her thoughts to the future. “Is there a way I can keep going, do something different, for my employees to do something different,” she asked. “I always try to keep that in the back of my mind.” She has entertained thoughts of opening a shop off the Island and would like to expand the store Web site. For now, however, she is quite content.
“I’m proud of the skate park. I am proud of being in business for 14 years. I am proud of having a staff that has stuck with me,” she said, standing up to greet a customer. “If you enjoy it, it will be successful.”