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One piece of advice, offered by a woman wise in the way of flea markets, always stuck with Eric Meyer: "Always stay until the end." And, sure enough, one day a few years back while tending a booth at the Jewett City Flea Market, he doubled his day's sales by being one of the last to close up shop.
Meyer has since parlayed his flea market experience into one of the Crystal Mall's most well-established independent stores, Ice Imports, which since 2006 has offered a collection of male-oriented gifts - swords and pocket knives, dragon statues and mineral specimens - not to mention an area in the back for "Magic: The Gathering" competitions.
He opened another Ice Imports store in 2011 with similar merchandise at the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor and has been contemplating a possible foray into franchising the concept.
"It just took off," Meyer said. "I just kept chasing the money."
Meyer, who grew up in Montville and Norwich but lives in Colchester, had been selling at fairs and flea markets since 2001. It wasn't paying the bills so he also worked a side job doing landscaping.
With family encouragement, he had been pursuing a cart at the mall when a 700-square-foot store became available at almost the same price. He and his wife, Danielle, worked 12 hours a day to launch the store. They joke that Sunday's eight-hour schedule constitutes a day off.
"I don't know what got into my head about money, but I always had to pursue it," Meyer said.
The pursuit sometimes has led him astray, he said, such as a four-year nightmare of helping out relatives with Meyer Deli at the mall's food court, a venture he calls an expensive learning experience. He has since decided to stick with the market he knows: cool stuff for the 16-to-35-year-old crowd.
"'Mom wouldn't let me have this stuff when I was young' - that's what drives the business," he said.
Another side of the business is "Magic: The Gathering," which in some ways is a complete departure from the gift shop. In the back of the store, a group - comprised largely of young men - work their Magic cards in a competition, which players say offers mental stimulation and a sense of community.
"We're all just one Magic-playing family," Zack Lemmon of East Lyme said as he play with friends Tanner Hall of Norwich and Cain Rianhard of East Lyme. "I just like having all my friends in one place."
Magic, which dates back to the 1990s and at last count was played by about 12 million people worldwide, is described as easy to learn but with strategic complexities.
"It's like poker meets chess," said Hall, who used to play in world poker tournaments.
Meyer added the card game to the mix at his now 1,400-square-foot store - he has been at three different mall locations through the years - after partnering with a former employee in a Magic store and then bailing out when relationships soured, he said. After a two-year noncompete agreement, he decided to add the game to his mix, and the result has seen increased sales from players seeking new Magic cards.
"Nerd is the new cool," Meyer said.
Just to prove it, he travels the world, mixing fun with a search for interesting new imports. Morocco, Rome and Istanbul are a few of the cities he has visited to check out hot new items and develop ideas for the store.
"From my mom, I inherited an ability to see what's hot and what's cool," Meyer said. "I have the blessed ability to see a little ahead of the curve."
Key, too, are some excellent employees, who are eligible for monthly bonuses when the individual stores hit sales targets, he said.
"Without the support of these people, I would never have been able to find my way through some of the darker times," he said.
The recession years were particularly tough, he added, a time when he had to learn a lot about debt and inventory management.
"I love business," Meyer said. "I like the hustle."
The Crystal Mall store works well because it is conducive to impulse purchases from people just walking by, he said. His other store near Hartford is in an outdoor mall where impulse buys are less likely and "Magic: The Gathering" is a larger part of the equation.
Meyer also has developed a strong online presence, shipping items as far away as Japan, Spain and Italy. He recently returned from a trip to Montreal where he was part of a big Magic tournament, spending two days selling, buying and trading cards.
But as he recalls his retail beginnings, he always harkens back to those days at the Jewett City Flea Market when he kept experimenting with different product lines until he got it right.
"Flea markets are incubators for businesses," he said. "You can grow out of them."
Name: Ice Imports
Principals: Eric and Danielle Meyer
Years in business: 8
Locations: Crystal Mall, Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
Phone: (860) 439-0621