How To Stay In Business During A Pandemic? Move Outdoors

By: Debra Lawless

Forest Beach Design set up Cape Cod’s Only “Art Jeweler Under The Big Top” in response to the pandemic. COURTESY PHOTO

It turns out that opals do not fare well when moved rapidly from indoor warmth to the outdoor cold of winter. They may even crack.

It was 27 degrees one morning last week, so the staff of Forest Beach Designer-Goldsmith at 436 Main St. in Chatham did not include the opals on the outside display tables.

“Everything else is hardy,” says Steve Wardle. The sensitivity of opals is one fun fact about gems that Wardle, a second-generation goldsmith, imparted during a telephone interview last week. Wardle and his wife, Barbara Knowlton, own Forest Beach.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Forest Beach is running what it dubs “Cape Cod’s Only Art Jeweler Under The Big Top!” The “big top” refers to a white tent of about eight-by-eight feet or so set up outside the store’s front door. The business moved its sales from indoors to under the open-sided tent in June. That’s when non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under the governor’s phased reopening plan that followed the March shut-downs.

“Nobody wants to get sick,” Wardle says. “Everyone here does special work. If we got sick, this place would just be closed.” Previously the store had a gallery manager, but she left after last Christmas, and “she was the only person who didn’t swing a torch.”

A jeweler’s torch, that is.

Wardle began training as a goldsmith in the late 1960s, under the direction of his father, Alfred H. Wardle, a professor of metalwork at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., according to Forest Beach’s website. Wardle later served as his father’s assistant instructor at the institute before earning a B.F.A. from the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Fine and Applied Arts. He became a partner in the Gold Mine, Inc., a fine jeweler and manufacturer in New Hartford, N.Y., and began to build a following for his custom design work that uses natural forms.

Knowlton, who received B.F.A. and M.S. degrees from Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts, is known for her outstanding color sense, which she applies to jewelry design.

In 1994 the couple opened their Main Street store in a building that was 444 square feet. About 13 years ago they moved a few doors up the street to a larger building in a circa 1780 house.

Their daughter Whitney, a recent college graduate who studied metal work, represents a second generation working in the store. Five employees now work at Forest Beach on staggered schedules, “not breathing in one another’s faces,” as Wardle puts it.

The store has taken the advice of top experts in preventing coronavirus transmissions to a whole new level with its outdoor sales.

“We haul the whole darn store out every day,” Wardle says. Two large tables are brought out and covered with cloths. Then Wardle lugs out six locked showcases and places them on the tables. “It’s an undertaking for sure.” The boxes are heavy and bulky. “We crammed 30 feet of showcase into 10 feet of showcase. They’re a little bit on top of each other.”

In the summer an employee stood outside all day. Now, with the colder weather, an employee stands just inside the door, “like a sentry,” watching for customers and also guarding the jewelry.

“We try to do a nice job of it,” Wardle says.

And Forest Beach’s customers do appreciate the setup. “People go home without germs.”

Taped markers on the sidewalk indicate where people should stand outdoors to social distance, but “people are trained now, they understand,” Wardle says. “They just stand there until it’s their turn. People generally are very thoughtful and polite.” In the summertime a few people were “insensitive to personal space and mask-wearing,” he adds. Some were what he calls “nose hangers,” people who wear their masks below their noses. At least once in the summer, “somebody had a big point to make, and they went off in a huff.”

But overall, he says, “the thank yous from the public have been overwhelming.”

These days “we conduct business in nice warm clothes,” Wardle says. “We watch the weather all the time.” One day, when winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour were expected, the staff took the tent down and stood in the rain helping customers.

Overall, the year has been quieter than usual. While foot traffic is down, the store phone rings constantly, and “I’ve never answered so much email in my life.” The store does many sales through the mail and even offered free shipping through Dec. 15. Shipments go all over, with some as close as Orleans.

On the whole, Wardle is happy about how “Cape Cod’s best outdoor craft fair” is going. “Running the store out of the front door makes everything three times as difficult, but we are doing our best and will continue to do so, barring tornadoes and winter storms.

“As long as my back holds out, we’re in great shape.”

For more information visit capecodcharms.com, where 600 pieces of jewelry are available. The “big top” store is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.