by RONA MANN / photos by Stephanie Sittnick

It was just a childhood dream…an activity to perhaps occupy rainy days.

But she loved it, so little Mary Ellen would spend hour upon hour in her closet playing with her wardrobe and accessories, even making clothes for her dolls. She loved playing “shop” and told her father, “one day I will have my own shop.”

But life changed things for a while as it often does, and Mary Ellen went off to school and became a Licensed Practical Nurse. Once graduated, she worked and worked hard, in a hospital setting, a nursing home, and as a private duty practitioner. Always work driven, Mary Ellen Grills even waited tables at a popular Stonington restaurant, paying the bills for herself and her daughter following an earlier divorce. Then one day she injured her back waiting tables and spent several weeks recuperating at home, wondering what she would do next. That’s when her very precocious 11 year old daughter asserted, “Don’t wait for a man to come along to take care of you. If you want to do something, go do it yourself.”

Mary Ellen took notice. During this period of healing she read an article in a magazine about two women in New York City who created a successful business fashioning gift baskets. “I said to myself, ‘I can do that!’ So I went to New York City with just $9000, all the money I had in the world. I spent every bit of it on gifts, came back home; and using a hair dryer to shrink wrap the cellophane over the items, I put together basket after basket.” Next Grills took her wares to the Crystal Mall in Waterford and started selling them at holiday times from a cart. “I had specialized baskets: for chocoholics, new babies, weddings…they all sold. People were constantly asking where they could find me; I realized the answer was ‘nowhere,’ since I was operating out of my apartment.”

It was time to grow, so Mary Ellen found a place “upstairs on Main Street” in 1985. She sought, and received, solid business advice from SCORE (part of the SBA); but although her adviser told her to wait at least another year before moving again, as soon as space downstairs became available, she moved into it.

Then there was the matter of a name. “I took at least six months until I found what I liked,” Grills said. What she liked was found in a friend’s gardening book: “Peppergrass.” It was unique and compelling, but it needed to “go” with something else. “So I kept looking at the book until I found ‘Tulip.’ That goes.”

In March of 2000 there was a devastating early morning fire in downtown Mystic that destroyed half a block of shops. It was the fourth time since 1863 that fire had struck the same building on West Main Street. Unfortunately, Mary Ellen’s beloved and very successful shop was one of the eight. The fire not only left a hole right in the heart of downtown, but in the hearts of the affected shopkeepers who now had no place to go. Fortunately Mary Ellen Grills did.

The owner of the pharmacy was planning to move on and had previously offered her this larger space. But her decision needed to be imminent, since other shopkeepers were now vying for the same spot. “I decided after just a couple of days to take it, and once again we were moving.” Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Grills once again branched out, this time adding clothing to her gifts and antiques. Mary Ellen loved the new space, always adding merchandise, changing displays, tweaking this and that. “The first ten years I spent hours and hours here. Sometimes the police would come by at night to find out if I were alright,” she laughed.

But Mary Ellen Grills was more than alright; she was flourishing, as was Peppergrass & Tulip. Even another temporary move forced by deteriorating beams that structurally affected the building, could not daunt this woman. She was more than a shopkeeper; she was a survivor, determined to continue bringing her love of beautiful, unique, and whimsical things to customers of every demographic. Today her shop is a true reflection of who this woman is, grabbing the visitor’s attention right from the first with hats of all stripes. There are hats to match an outfit, hats to wear to the Kentucky Derby, hats for fun, and right now, wildly popular witches hats…delightful bejeweled toppers for the inner hag in you.

Love socks? Peppergrass & Tulip has them, but not the ordinary. Matter of fact, nothing here is the “ordinary.” You won’t find these socks anywhere else. And there are racks of cards for every occasion, bought and skillfully arranged by “Marge,” the 93 year old employee Mary Ellen happily “inherited” from the pharmacy. Clothing runs the gamut from stylish and fun sweaters, to flowing dresses and skirts, with scarves to mix and match. Grills does all the buying herself, trolling the gift shows in Atlanta and New York to bring back such treasures as Art Hearts ornaments, charming frames, and Ayala Bar jewelry, a handmade line straight from Israel. Soaps in crazy animal shapes, lotions, books, flowered jewelry, baby gifts, night lights…everywhere you look, there’s something unique and appealing, and Mary Ellen Grills has put her distinctive stamp right on it.

Best of all, the merchandise, the displays, and the “finds” change frequently as Mary Ellen continues to redesign Peppergrass & Tulip at whim. “I always say, expect the unexpected here;” and indeed, that’s what customers have come to love. It’s not just another gift shop…it’s a delightful treasure hunt.

Upon examination of a standard gardening manual, one finds that initially peppergrass begins as a slow growing rosette, but as it grows, the stems bolt upward and branch out. Not unlike the little girl who shyly played “shop” in her closet so many years ago, slowly growing and maturing, until like peppergrass, she bolted upward and branched out, finding exactly what she wanted to do all along…and along the journey, finding herself.

Peppergrass & Tulip is found at 30 West Main Street in downtown Mystic   (860) 536-1516

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