GLOUCESTER—On June 1, a pair of exotic new occupants moved into the old Empire building on Main Street. But the owners of these businesses—a yoga studio and a retailer of handmade Asian wares—have promised they’ll honor the traditions that make the property and the City of Gloucester so special.
The promises were issued on Sunday night at a community event in the newly renovated building, home to the Empire department store from 1951 to 2004.
“Tonight was about mutual understanding,” said Mark Davis, the 39-year-old owner of The Flouncy Orchid and one of the hosts of the event. “There had been a lot of anxiety—anger, even—among our neighbors.”
Davis gestured toward a few dozen individuals, who were now sampling oolong teas, lounging on meditation cushions, and touring the remodeled interior.
One attendee was 68-year-old Leo Ventura, a Gloucester native and retired fisherman. He expressed concern that “two businesses reeking of incense and West Coast faddishness” would profane the building’s heritage.
Ventura explained, “Empire was the soul of downtown Gloucester. For decades, I bought all my American-made socks and underpants there. Now this Floppy Orchid outfit wants to peddle goods made in Cambodia.” He pawed at a pile of colorful tapestries. “Granted, there’s no better place to weave Cambodian textiles.”
Epiphanies like this one make Davis optimistic that his store—long a fixture on Bearskin Neck in Rockport—will ultimately win over Gloucester.
Of course, compromise is a two-way street.
“Early on in the evening, we realized that the fur vault was a sticking point,” Davis said, referring to the 8’ x 12’ reinforced steel box that once secured Empire’s beaver coats and fox stoles.
Several Gloucester residents feared the new owners might sell it for scrap.
“What if the mink population explodes, pimps go retro, and the industry rebounds?” said Eva Serafino, a 74-year-old resident of the Fort Square neighborhood. “Gloucester needs to protect its fur infrastructure, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Standing nearby and nodding her head was Fiona Falcone, the 34-year-old owner of Centered Yoga and co-host of the event. “If it would appease the community,” she said, “why shouldn’t we turn the vault into a Bikram-style aromatherapy chamber?”
Mark Davis was equally enthusiastic about the idea. “Hop inside with a kerosene heater and a few lavender candles,” he said, “and let the stress just melt away.”
“And if the lavender isn’t enough,” Falcone said, “carbon monoxide should take care of the rest.”
Other residents worried that renovations had destroyed the legacy of the building’s 11-year period of neglect.
Dan McKinnon, another Gloucester native, elaborated: “I have fond memories of strolling past the glass storefront and just staring at the filthy floor and random construction debris. It’s all part of the building’s unique history.”
So Davis has agreed to return one section of his store to its former, derelict state. “We’ll just rope off this corner adjacent to the window,” he said, “and curate a scene that tastefully evokes despair and dilapidation.”
Falcone made some suggestions: “I’d start with a rusty folding chair. Then scatter bent nails and crumpled Keno tickets. Finally, as an accent piece, an overturned can of Shasta.”
“Or maybe a Styrofoam cup from Dunks,” Davis said, rubbing his chin. “We’re striving for authenticity.”
Whereas these concessions prompted immediate applause, the concept of yoga was a harder sell.
“Then I explained that yoga is not unlike fishing,” Falcone said. “To the untrained eye, both involve spending long periods of time in one position, seemingly doing nothing. But each requires great concentration.”
“And both have their accoutrements,” she continued. “The yogi carries her mat, blocks, and cotton strap. While the fisherman carries his rod, tackle, and cooler of Narragansett.”
“This was an ‘Aha’ moment for a lot of folks,” Davis added.
It was also the moment Falcone hatched the idea that swayed the holdouts in the audience.
She explained: “America’s oldest seaport deserves a yoga studio that reflects its traditions. So teachers at our studio won’t ask their students to move into downward dog or tree pose.”
She sat on the hardwood floor and splayed her legs nearly 180 degrees. “Instead, each posture will have a maritime-themed name,” she said, jackknifing forward and gripping her toes with her fingers.
Davis beamed. “Behold!” he said. “The flaccid tuna.”
Centered Yoga will offer four classes each day for beginners through advanced practitioners.
The Flouncy Orchid will sell an assortment of clothing, jewelry, furnishings, and musical instruments—as well as freshly cut herring.