By Ann Luongo
In 2005, Sarah Higgins was a young mom, running a successful photography business out of her home while taking care of her three boys, all under the age of 4. She was running ragged, she said, but loving every minute of it. It was around this time she decided to expand her photography business and move into a brick-and-mortar space on Main Street in Chatham.
“I came up with the idea to start a photography-related gift shop,” she said. “At that point, I called it ‘Snap,’ and ran that while my photo business continued to thrive. I relocated across the courtyard, expanding the retail shop, and changed the name to ‘Three Buoys,’ after a brainstorm session with a neighbor who had three boys as well. The name is always a conversation starter, even after 14 years.”
The shop became its own entity within three years and Higgins was now running two businesses – Snap and Three Buoys – on Main Street. “I fell in love with my customers and photo clients alike,” she said. “The town was very welcoming and some of my best friendships to this day flourished during this time.”
Three Buoys specialized in custom gift products and home decor, adding a little bit of fun to what downtown Chatham was offering at that point, while trying to be unique in its product offerings. In 2010 during a divorce, Higgins chose to open a second location in her hometown of Harwich Port, in the building that was previously home to House of Morgan.
“I went to the new landlord, Dennis Miller, and offered him a flat rate for the space for July and August. I had no idea that this would then become my new home for Three Buoys in the Port,” said Higgins. “The sales that first season exceeded any numbers I could’ve dreamed in Chatham. Harwich has only grown, as has Three Buoys.”
In 2012 newly remarried Higgins, along with her boys, moved to Norwell. She wasn’t ready to give up her businesses, but she knew she needed to focus on acclimating the boys to their new school and their new town. So she decided to bring in a business partner, Michelle Archibald, who is still an active partner in Harwich Port.
Higgins said she and her business partner have built a custom gift shop, geared toward their customer base. Their goal is to stand out: “We do not want carry what anyone else has and we go out of our way to do this, dropping lines if needed,” she said. “Harwich Port has changed so much in the past eight years that the shop has been in town. We used to mainly have repeat second-home owners as shoppers, and now we get lots of locals, people from all over the Cape driving through town, and tourists who are there for the day.”
Their top best sellers are, by far, personalized wooden blocks and signs, custom clothing and a pillow and tea towel line that can also be personalized. Cat Studio is a brand that sells like wildfire, Higgins said. “It’s collegiate line of glasses and pillows appeals to everyone. They also offer cities, states, mountains and are continuously expanding.”
In more recent years, Three Buoys has brought in several jewelry lines that have provided the company its highest revenue years to date. “Lola & Company is a Massachusetts-based jewelry company that is now flourishing and we can’t keep it in stock.”
As with most small businesses, the concerted (and endless) efforts of one person or a small team is what sets the course for success. Higgins’ company was no different, although over the years, her small team has grown.
“When I started the company I worked a lot,” she said. “I had one employee for over seven years who came from Chatham to Harwich with me. In Chatham, I probably had four or five employees and, in Harwich Port during the high season, the most we have is six or seven. (During the) off season, we have four staff to help work the five days we stay open. Our season tends to run from late April or early May right through Dec. 31.”
In 2014, following the birth of a baby girl, Higgins began itching to open a South Shore location. The doors of Three Buoys in downtown Hingham opened for what was supposed to be a six-month trial, as the building was scheduled to be demolished. As fate would have it, the building fell down before the six months were up, and Higgins decided to take a break before looking for another location.
“I was out of steam to open again until this year when something fell in my lap, so to speak,” she said. “I built a South Shore presence by attending holiday shows, and hosting shows at my home for friends and customers to come and shop. This is a very taxing way to do retail, and I frankly want to work when my kids are in school, not only in the summer when they’re around.”
She began her search once more and, in only about 10 days, found exactly what she was looking for, in Duxbury.
“As an entrepreneur, when you get the itch, you get the itch and it’s hard to shake it. I don’t know Duxbury at all,” she said. “I’ve lived in Norwell for six years now and we go to Harwich Port in the summer. Duxbury had the vibe in the space and area I was hoping to land in, and I opened the doors on my own on November 3 and just had the most enjoyable and successful holiday season I could’ve ever hoped for.
“Duxbury has been beyond welcoming. I am still finding my niche there, as people are still finding me. Three Buoys and a Mermaid (renamed at this location to include her daughter) is lucky to be located behind the delicious Oysterman restaurant, which brings a fantastic customer base from all over to draw from. I currently have brands here that I wouldn’t necessarily have in Harwich Port. It’s a year-round customer base, and I am building a brand loyalty for the South Shore.”
For now, Higgins is satisfied with her current locations and has no plans to further expand anytime soon. However, “I have learned to never say never, as life throws you curveballs and you have to be ready to hit,” she said. “Many friends come to me saying ‘open here, I want to work, or open here, it would be such a hit; we have nothing like it.’ I can honestly say that I do see another location being opened at some point. On my plate right now, outside of both storefronts, is beginning the college tour process with our 17-year-olds boys, kindergarten registration for our 5-year-old and keeping the 14-year-old busy!”
Ultimately, Higgins said she hopes to continue enjoying what she does, especially a stressful year following a breast cancer diagnosis. In addition to running her two businesses (she closed her photography business in 2016), raising a family and keeping up with her own health, she still makes time to give back to the community, as well.
“This past summer, my then-4-and-a-half-year-old daughter took in some great donations herself while running a lemonade stand during the Music in the Port strolls,” she said, referring to the Wednesday evening summertime series. “With the money she collected, we purchased items and delivered wrapped gifts to My Brother’s Keeper in Easton.” This, she said, will be an annual tradition with her daughter.
“Being from a small town and living in one now, we always try to donate items to charities throughout the year — ranging from fundraisers for sports teams, the Harwich Elementary School, Norwell Youth Football, a neighborhood event that takes place every summer in Harwich Port — and we enjoy seeing the benefits of what we donate.”
You can learn more about Three Buoys and Three Buoys and a Mermaid on Facebook.