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Adapting business to a pandemic

Stonington — A dozen years ago, in the throes of the Great Recession, Carolyn Yost realized that for her antiques and estate jewelry business to survive she was going to have to diversify.

“It was 2008 and business was way down, antiques and jewelry were very, very slow,” she said, “And I thought, ‘I need to reinvent this store.’”

So, she visited gift shows and researched other options and finally settled on selling Avon products.

“I realized I could be an Avon lady, I could be a single supplier,” said the proprietor, who still sells antiques and jewelry from her cream-colored and coral building at Water and Pearl streets in Stonington Borough, but has continued to sell Avon, which it turns out is a prudent line to carry in a pandemic.

In addition to its potions and creams, the company sells face masks and nitrile gloves, and a steady stream of customers have been stopping by to pick them up.

To get through the Covid-virus shutdown, Yost reinvented her business once again, moving herself and some of her merchandise outdoors. She’s set up shop in her doorway and on the adjacent sidewalk. And, she’s moved some of her Avon offerings into her oversized display windows, settled among the vintage tea cups, antiques, collectibles, and jewelry she has displayed there.

Since mid-March, Yost has not allowed customers inside her store, but she has been doing a brisk business selling the Avon-made face masks and gloves, as well as the hugely popular Bug Guard, which is DEET-free and repels ticks, mosquitoes, gnats and another harmful and annoying pests, curbside and at her entryway. Ticks are prevalent throughout the year and Yost’s regular customers have been grateful to be able to stop by and stock up on the Bug Guard.

And, with the gloves and masks displayed on a small table right outside her door, passersby stop to shop, some delighted to find the masks because, without one, they are unable to dine at nearby restaurants.

Yost never imagined she’d be in the Avon business; in fact, she intended to go to veterinarian school while a student at UConn. But when the top student in her animal science degree program wasn’t admitted to competitive veterinary school, she realized she’d better find a different occupation.

A Waterford native, she’d always had an interest in antiques, and with her now ex-husband, they went into the business in the mid-1970s and bought the Water Street building about a decade later. Not long after, when they bought out the contents of an estate in New London, the couple acquired some Victorian jewelry that spurred Yost’s interest and led her to take classes on estate jewelry. Collecting and selling vintage jewelry soon became her niche.

When she and her husband split in the late ’90s, she changed the name of her business to Carolyn Yost Estate Jewelry & Stonington Antiques Etc. She continues to buy out estates and sell vintage everything, from furniture, to china, martini and wine glasses, to artwork, and even a Venetian glass chandelier, as well as her line of Avon products. Her business is housed in a circa 1850 Water Street building that was originally a hardware store and that Yost said has always been commercial space on the first floor.

Her success, she explained, has much to do with her interest in other people, including her customers.

“I’m a people person, and I love retail,” she said. “And you have to like working with people to succeed in retail.

“A lot of my customers have become my friends,” she said.

Sometime soon, Yost would like to welcome customers back into her store, but in the meantime, she’s happy to carry out whatever a customer is interested in, or, take a photograph of it. Her jewelry ranges in price from $5 into the thousands, including diamond rings, and a host of antiques, vintage, and other bric-a-brac.

“It’s the little odds and ends that keep cashflow going when furniture isn’t selling,” Yost said.

She’s been in the borough for decades and likes the other shopkeepers and her customers, many who visit her from out-of-town. In warmer weather there’s a steady stream of daily walkers, and clientele that come to the borough by boat and shop at her store. And then there are her Avon regulars, who like the products, especially the Bug Guard. “I like to think I’m doing my share to keep people healthy,” she said.

Business Snapshot

What: Carolyn Yost Estate Jewelry & Stonington Antiques Etc.

Where: 148 Water St., Stonington

Hours: By appointment or 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays (except Wednesdays) and noon to 5 Sundays.

More information: (860) 535-8422

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