ELLICOTT CITY, MD. -- Melissa Fulton thought waterfowl and sailing items would sell, that customers coming to her Celebrate Maryland! shop here would not be interested in the usual tourist trinkets.
She was wrong.
"People want back-scratchers, they want thimbles and collector spoons and plates," said Fulton, whose three-year merchandising effort has succeeded with her copyrighted logo, crabs and the Maryland state flag on almost everything.
"I had no idea how much response I would get to custom products with the Maryland flag on it, everything from 25-cent stickers to engraved pewter," she said.
Hers is what is known in the field as a regional theme shop. It is the largest Maryland-only store in the state, with more than 1,800 items in stock ranging from books to back-scratchers to crab visors, crab masks, crab note pads and bibs, and even a "crab time" cap with a battery-operated clock in front.
While her books cover the entire state, there is little else in the store that strays too many miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. "The first thing Marylanders mention, when they think of Maryland themselves, is crabs," said Fulton. "It's been predominantly the flag and the crab."
A resident of this picturesque former mill town since 1969, Fulton had put in 17 years with the Rouse Co., many at Harborplace in Baltimore and in the nearby planned community of Columbia, and worked for a year with a Baltimore commercial brokerage group when, at the age of 40, she decided to switch careers. She quit her job, and to raise the $75,000 she needed for start-up cash she took out a second mortgage on her home.
"It was scary," she recalled. "There were days when I'd go home, sit down and cry from the stress of worrying whether it would succeed."
As it turned out, the business turned a profit after six months. Now she carries $250,000 worth of inventory at any one time, claims annual gross sales of $500 per square foot, has eight employees and is considering an offer from a retail developer to open two more shops in the Baltimore area.
For the past year, she has also held a new full-time job, as director of corporate real estate for the troubled Maryland National Bank in Baltimore. "It's a little bit of a comfort to know you have your own business," Fulton said.
Ellicott City, which has survived flood and fire to emerge as a trendy tourist mecca, was a natural place for her business. The rents were right and it was close to home. "I didn't want to be driving 40 minutes," she said. "Here, I could have dinner at home and come down to work in the store."
In naming her store, Fulton said she "made list of all things I thought would sound fun and festive and uplifting. 'Celebrate' was appropriate because that's what we doing, celebrating all great things about the state."
"There is so much to celebrate. It's a good name for a store," said Anne Johnston, a schoolteacher-turned-merchandiser who owns five regional theme shops, including the Virginia Shop at Rouse's Waterside mall in Norfolk.
Since 1980, Johnston has had the Here's Harborplace store in Baltimore, which sells souvenir gifts promoting the Rouse development. Also in Harborplace is Maryland My Maryland, mostly a print shop. To distinguish herself from the others, Fulton also bills her business as "Maryland's Best Maryland Store."
Many of her customers would agree. Take Cheryl Valentine's 6-year-old son, David, for example. "This is his favorite shop," she said. "He's bought half of what's in here. He's in school this morning, so I'm safe."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Maryland's chief booster, is also a customer. "Last week, he asked for 50 sweat shirts to give to state legislators on his yacht," Fulton said. Schaefer is prominently pictured at the store, and the store's catalogue -- sent to 100,000 households annually -- includes a "Dear Friends" letter from Schaefer inviting readers "to celebrate Maryland!" However, only 20 percent of the store's sales are by mail, Fulton said.
Walk-in customers include many out-of-staters as well as locals.
Anna Waller, a cousin of Valentine's who was buying gifts for friends in New Zealand, where she lives, left with Orioles and Maryland T-shirts, a crab bib for a friend who just had a baby, Orioles earrings, Old Bay cookbooks, postcards, a "Maryland With Pride" note pad, a Maryland travel mug and a "Basic Baltimorese" book for a friend "spending next year in Baltimore."
"We don't want to be too esoteric," said Fulton. "We want to serve the masses. They want, number one, the Maryland flag, and number two, crabs.
"I don't want to be viewed as a store only for the upper income. We get people looking for something for their scout troop to take to a jamboree in Colorado."