I met Christina Shipps for the first time last year, as the proprietor of the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed in. As fellow travelers we exchanged stories of multi-national chain hotels, boutique hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts and inns we’d stayed in all over the world as part of our work. Christina spent over 20 years travelling the world as vice-president and principle designer of the New York luxury jewellery company, Hammerman Brothers. “I took the company international, because I hated living in New York. And because I was single I went to see every international customer”, she tells me over breakfast in the Inn on the Harbor in Stonington on Deer Isle in Maine, which now belongs to her and which she has turned into this haven for national and international travelers alike.
The peaceful setting of Stonington Harbor, with its lobster fishing boats, sailing boats, the occasional kayak and the even more rare wild swimmer are in stark contrast to life in New York which Christine left 11 years ago, symbolically throwing her keys over the George Washington Bridge as she left the city forever, to embrace the next phase of her life in Maine. “You don’t move to Maine to become rich”, she tells me; “you move to Maine to become happy and live longer. And if you can support yourself here, you can be happier than anywhere else”.
Christina was born into a WASP Boston family, and while all her contemporaries went off to Ivy League Colleges to study English Literature, Christina took a different path and applied to art school. In the first semester she was labeled a fraud as an artist, but during the second term she worked in 3 dimensions: in the dirty, loud, physical world of metalsmithing, and she knew she’d found her niche. “They all had degrees,” she remembers of her school friends, “But I had a trade”. This trade stood her in good stead later during the period of the Vietnam War when jobs became few and far between, but Christina landed a teaching job at an all girls finishing school, teaching metalsmithing and jewellery making. She left after being reprimanded by the School Dean as too many girls were turning their backs on a life of laying tables and getting married in order to pursue jewellery-making. “Then I was hired to manage a fine jewellery store in Boston, and my career, unbeknownst to me, started. I did custom designing and bought products from jewellery manufacturers, including several from New York”.
Major decisions in Christina’s life have often been driven by turmoil in families. Her parents compared her unfavourably to her brilliant sister, so she bucked the trend and went to art school rather than university. There she roomed next to what seemed like “the only straight guy in the whole school”, and she married him at age 21. “It took 2 years to try and make the marriage work, then 2 years to take it apart, and I was divorced at age 24”, she tells me with a laugh. She went on to meet a customer who became the great love of her life, and one half of an intense relationship. Sadly, she ended up nursing him until his untimely death. “After Mack died, my goal was to feed myself and hold onto my sanity”, she tells me sadly. “I clung onto work and became the perfect employee for Hammerman Brothers, who were looking for a designer at the time. I wasn’t fighting off depression; just surviving”, she says with the slight air of detachment that clings to people who have survived an untimely bereavement.
It was the turmoil of the next generation growing up to take their place at the top echelons of Hammerman Brothers that led Christina to the start of her next phase of life. She had an aunt and uncle who summered in Stonington, and Christina visited regularly and dreamt of settling there. It was her aunt who gave her the idea of how to turn the dream into reality, when she suggested to Christina that if she lived in Stonington and couldn’t travel, she should let the world come to her. Christina put in an offer for the building that became the Inn on the Harbor, and though she didn’t know how to run a hotel, her extensive travel experience meant she knew what guests wanted when they stayed in a hotel room, and that has made the Inn such a popular place to stay. “My driver wasn’t running an Inn, but to be in Stonington. What else could a fine jeweler do in a lobstering village?” she asks me.
She was an absentee owner for 7 years, and then left the jewellery business in 2001 when her beloved boss and mentor at Hammerman Brothers passed away. “My boss had taught me so much about business, and I am extremely grateful to him”, she adds thoughtfully. Christina’s business sense and her boundless energy and creativity are visible everywhere, and not just in the Inn. She completely renovated the Inn, and then opened a restaurant and bought an ice-cream company in the town. As president of the local Chamber she also took over the famous Lupine Festival and ran it for 7 years, and last year did a local food festival on the Island.
She tells me that she discovered something about herself and this has led to her next plan. “At 63 I discovered that I am project person. My mind whirrs and the creativity kicks in. My joy in life is working. I am a typical Protestant of my class and generation and I have to be useful. I don’t know how to be on a beach for more than a day. Working creatively is my greatest joy”. I ask her if she ever relaxes, and her answer comes quickly; “What calms my soul is walking in the woods, driving my tractor, looking at the mountains and lakes and snowmobiling, which I love”. “Do you do all that around here in Stonington?” I ask, and her answer makes me laugh. “I bought a farm up in the north of Maine, in Patten, in 2007. I fell in love with the area. My view of Central Park was fabulous but it’s nothing compared to this on the edge of Baxter State Park and the glorious Mount Katahdin”. “So”, I ask incredulously, after everything she’s told me; “Does this mean you are going to stop working now?” “Oh no,” she laughs; “If someone told me I had to retire, I’d kill myself!”
Then she takes my breath away: “I’ve made the original Mountain Glory farmhouse into two duplexes which I rent out. Then we built a new house on the back 50 acres of the farm. Now I want to build a sort of year round farmstand/café/retail shop. We will sell the produce from our farm and that of our neighbours, and we’ll add value to it by producing portions of fresh and frozen healthy food, and baked goods and ice-cream too. We’ll have a seasonal Christmas business, a café with wifi where people can and sit with a corner where I can sell my antiques and the also the products made by my Amish neighbours”. Then she adds, “Businesses should be live entities and you should have the courage to experiment”.
Christina dreamt her farm would return to being a working dairy farm and she invited an Amish family to live on the farm and make use of the land. They took a fortnight to build a farmhouse, and will raise a barn in the traditional Amish style in Spring this year.
The Amish won’t be the only people making beautiful artifacts. Christina’s partner (“My sweetie”), Glenn is also miserable if he isn’t working. “Glenn and I are the odd couple in Deer Isle. He is 11 years younger than I, and I met him when he was working on doing up the Inn. Now I design things and he makes them. He can make anything – furniture, cakes, ice-cream, houses”. Her eyes twinkle as she adds, “Glenn is the wind in my sails”.
Christina’s passion and energy for her new project certainly has an impact on me. My husband and I are returning to Stonington in the summer of 2013, and we will spend a few days at Mountain Glory Farm and in Baxter Park, walking, fishing – and no doubt eating home-made fresh produce and ice-cream too. I can’t wait to see her and Glenn again, and to see what they’ve achieved in this next phase of their life.
Christina’s Prime Time Tips are:
- Never trivialise the huge impact you can accomplish during your next transition. Use your experience and apply it in new situations
- If you can profoundly help one other person, then your life has been a success. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister to others
- If you judged yourself on the basis of your success (money/power), then you need a new ruler
- The people who are really happy set their goals just in reach. It’s striving and stretching your brain that brings fulfillment
- If people laugh at you, laugh with them – and then go do what you were going to do anyway
- Remember the advantage of our age is that the world opens up to us and we have outgrown the need be inhibited by others