From Nautical Antiques To Quirky Gifts: Yankee Ingenuity Turns 50

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Business

Jon Vaughan opened Yankee Ingenuity in downtown Chatham in 1971. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

CHATHAM — “Oh, this is that store,” is a comment that Sharon Hayes overhears while gardening outside Yankee Ingenuity at 525 Main St. in Chatham. “They don’t know the name of it.”

After 50 years, while some customers still don’t know the name of Yankee Ingenuity, they do know it’s where they want to go to buy that locally-made gift or craft item.

This morning Hayes and her husband Jon Vaughan are outside the store on the “shark deck”-- a broad handicapped ramp leading up to the store’s side door. Here, Hayes has planted a row of mixed coleus and sweet potato vine. She calls this an “average day in July.” Already, by 10 a.m., 32 boxes have been delivered, one employee has called in sick, and Hayes has to find a replacement.

Vaughan opened Yankee Ingenuity on April 25, 1971 when he was 26. In the early years, Vaughan and his late wife Lynne hunted for rundown nautical antiques and other items that Vaughan could refinish and sell. The store was first established up Main Street and moved to its current address in 1975. But by the early 1980s, the character of Yankee Ingenuity changed to a crafts gallery and gift shop. In addition, Vaughan began photographing the Cape and selling his matted photographs in an in-store gallery. His award-winning photographs are collected in his book “Coastal Effects.”

Today Vaughan is 76 and his niece, Michelle Millet, is a co-owner of the store. But while Vaughan and Hayes may have cut back their hours, they have no plan to retire.

Vaughan paraphrases a quote from Neil Young in saying, “You’ll know when I’m retired, because I’ll be dead.”

“If you’re an artist, there is no retirement,” Hayes adds. Hayes is also an artist, and her paintings and prints are sold in the store.

It’s a cloudy morning and Main Street is humming with visitors here for the Fourth holiday. Yankee Ingenuity, too, is filling with visitors. Some are speaking French.

“It’s overcast, so we know we’re going to be busy,” Hayes says. “We know the parking lot will be full by 11.”

After 50 years, the store has seen a lot of customers — two and even three generations' worth. One man said he began shopping here when he was eight, and now he’s 58.

One thing that has changed in five decades is that now everyone has a phone — with a camera. A common comment Hayes hears is, “I can get this on Amazon. People take a picture and say, ‘I’ll get it when I get home.’”

The store features the products of so many wonderful local artists and artisans, though, that it’s unlikely anyone will duplicate many of the products on Amazon. Some of the local items are Alizah Packett’s art from bottlecaps she collects from local taverns; Jeff Pozgay’s handmade clocks; Isabelle Green’s glass worked into octopuses and other nautical shapes; Jim Caizzi’s turned-wood lighthouses; Nick Nickerson’s ornamental sea scallop shells; Ken Stevens’ birdhouses made of found materials and license plates; Vangie Collins’ jewelry; Kay Rosato’s mussel shell wreaths and horseshoe shell clocks; soy candles by Flotsam & Jetsam Goods; and Sarah Tobin’s handmade signs such as “Call Me When You Get to the Bridge.”

“We look high and low for cool stuff,” Hayes says. “We buy stuff we like.” She dubs the store a “curiosity shop” with its approximately 5,000 separate items, much of it displayed in antique cases retrofitted by Vaughan. One is a giant, antique camera body.

“Our big job is to be curators,” Vaughan says. “There’s a lot out there.”

“Some people come in — ‘what’s with the skulls?’” Hayes says. “Jon likes skulls.”

Yes, you will find a lot of skulls here as well as another popular item this year — coprolites, or “fossilized poop,” likely up to 60 million years old.

The store works with 400 vendors. And while the merchandise is displayed in 900 square feet of showroom, it is stored in an additional 2,000 square feet of stockroom.

Over the past half hour, the store has been filling up steadily. A sign advises those not vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear a mask. Maybe almost everyone here today has been vaccinated — only a couple of customers are masked. A year ago, it was a different matter. The store was closed for 92 days, starting in the middle of March 2020. A Payback Protection Program loan tided it over. When the store reopened, it did a “huge” online business with curbside pickup and even some local deliveries.

“The customers were faithful and loyal,” Hayes says. She adds that she is also grateful to the staff. “They’ve just rolled with the punches with this crazy pandemic.”

Of the 10 to 15 full- and part-time summer employees, some have worked here for 15 or 20 years. Vaughan adds that the store hires teens at 14 or 15, and they work here through college.

This summer, the store will sponsor a “pop-up shop” with Flotsam & Jetsam Goods on July 26, and the Canon Hill Band will perform on Aug. 2 from 6 to 9 p.m. during Mondays on Main. The band's guitarist works in the store.

Yankee Ingenuity is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.yankee-ingenuity.com.