For my last 4 years in the Caribbean, I was a General Manager and thus head buyer for a chain of gift shops in St.Maarten called Shipwreck Shops. I managed 16 stores and 52 employees by day and then went home and continued to run West Indies Wear and design new collections at night.
The company was started by a young Dutch couple in the early 70's when St.Maarten was a quiet little island of infinite beauty, and a burgeoning tourist market.
When I worked there the company was owned by a big retail corporation which was off-island, so except for a few visits a year to check up on me, I was fairly much left to make my own decisions, with lots of help from the amazing team of Caribbean workers who had worked there for up to 40 years, since the company started. They were from all the nations of the Caribbean.... Anguilla, Dominica, St.Kitts & Nevis, Antigua, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Suriname, and yes even some from St.Maarten itself. It was an all-nations company, but then St.Maarten really is an all-nations country.
There were tough times at first as I struggled to gain the respect of the people who had worked there forever, but I worked hard alongside them and always tried to be fair. We re-fitted many shops, we opened new shops, we painted the warehouse in my crazy island colors. I took all the photos, made the websites, signs, and did all the marketing. It was a challenge I loved.
Despite my fashion design and manufacturing background, I took the job because I wanted to learn about the retail side of my trade, and learn I did! I travelled to NY Gift Show, LA Gift Show, Surf Expo a couple of times a year to choose new things for the stores. I also did an amazing handicraft sourcing trip to Haiti with a bunch of other Caribbean buyers. In our stores we carried everything from hot sauces, fridge magnets, and shot glasses to sarongs and clothing.... West Indies Wear - of course. I loved having a hands-on chance to work on instore display.
When I left the job to move back home to Australia and have my baby, I was traumatized. I will never forget how I sobbed when the plane took off, it was the only time in all my 10 years in the Caribbean that I couldn't look out of the window when the plane took off. I cried all the way to Puerto Rico. I will never forget the smiles and friendships I made within that team.
Recently my good friend and the original owner of the company called in to visit one of the team members who had worked there for 40 years, but has recently retired. She emailed me the next day, "Of course we talked about you" she said, and then this lady pulled out a picture that my 5 year old daughter had colored in and given to her. She has kept it all these years.
She sent me these photos....oops that had me crying again. It sure is nice to think that I might have touched their hearts as much as they touched mine!
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