A specialty natural history shop in the Mount Desert Island village of Seal Harbor that has attracted a devoted customer base has reopened with a new owner, a year after its prior owner said he intended to close it down.
Michael Boland, an MDI-based restaurateur who last month purchased Sunday River Brewing in Bethel, this past winter acquired the Naturalist’s Notebook and, with the help of employee Jordan Chalfant, reopened the shop on Memorial Day weekend after it was closed for all of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chalfant, an artist who worked at the business under its prior owners, Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood, is managing the shop for Boland.
Even before the pandemic arrived in Maine, tragedy struck when Markwood unexpectedly passed away in December 2018, leaving Neff to forge ahead on his own. The shop opened for the 2019 season, but a year ago Neff said that he decided to close it for good, according to the Mount Desert Islander, a weekly newspaper.
The shop, located on three floors of a storefront building next to the local post office on Main Street, had become a local attraction over a decade of ownership by Neff and Markwood, who created the store and came up with its novel interior layout and design. Interspersed among the shelves of books, toys, art supplies and other merchandise are interactive exhibits that help to teach and engage customers as they browse the aisles.
Different sections of the shop, which is spread out over three floors, have different themes, some defined by specific periods of the planet’s history. In the basement, a timeline of Earth’s natural history printed on the floor leads visitors past a display on minerals to a small room about dinosaurs, and then to another about early mammals. The main floor has sections devoted to plant life, to the animals of different continents and to the variety of life and natural history specific to Maine. On the top floor are merchandise and exhibits — including a moon room — about the solar system, the human brain and outer space.
Household items such as bottle openers in the shape of beetles, silicone freezer trays that produce ice cubes in the shape of Albert Einstein’s famous “E=MC²” equation, Charles Darwin Christmas ornaments and tumbler drinking glasses with the names of astronauts on them can be found among the shelves. There are a lot of plastic and plush animals, representing creatures living and extinct and, yes, notebooks for artists and other observers to make note of their outdoor discoveries.
The store is like “a mini museum,” Boland said, with the gift shop interwoven with the displays.
A graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Boland worked as a naturalist on a local whale watch boat before he opened his first restaurant in 1995. He acknowledged that owning a retail shop is not his forte, but said that natural history has long been one of his passions.
“I was there a lot,” Boland said of prior summers when he visited the shop, either with his daughters or on his own. “I love the place.”
Boland said that when the shop was on hiatus last summer, Chalfant — also a College of the Atlantic graduate — helped maintain the gardens at his house in Bar Harbor, where they chatted about the shop and what its fate might be. Chalfant then contacted Neff to see if he wanted to sell it and, after some discussions between Neff and Boland, they struck a deal.
Boland said he has two partners in the business, and that Neff was “extremely helpful” in making sure Boland and Chalfant had the information and connections they needed to keep it going.
“He wanted to keep it going and to keep it vital,” Boland said. “I’m really excited about it.”
Boland said he has no plans to make any operational or physical changes at the shop, and that Chalfant will continue to run it the way it ran under Neff and Markwood. This includes scheduling and hosting naturalist workshops, information on which can be found on the shop’s Facebook page.