Serendipity in Sunglasses

In 1985 Andrew Aliberti was a cash-strapped college student working multiple jobs, including selling cheap sunglasses from a cart at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Wanting a challenge of his own, he asked his boss for a loan to start his own business. “Only a twenty-year-old would ask a boss of two months for money,” Andrew says with a chuckle, but his boss agreed.

“I drove down [to Martha’s Vineyard] with a friend and $7,000, which seemed like a fortune at the time,” Andrew says, and he opened Summer Shades, his Edgartown sunglasses shop. Thanks to a poor location off Main Street, distractions (“There were like fourteen cute girls living upstairs”), and the fact that “I didn’t know anything about business,” that first summer was a failure. “I lost the money.”

Undeterred, in 1986 Andrew went to his mother, who took out a second mortgage for $20,000 on her house in Boston. Andrew paid his debt from the previous year and opened again in a new location in the back of a Main Street business. His sales tripled, which was enough to pay back his mom.

The next year, a small storefront nearby opened up, so he went to Edgartown National Bank for a loan. “He asked me if I had collateral. I said I had a stereo.” Despite this honesty, he got a $60,000 line of credit, and opened Summer Shades at 36 Main Street, where he’s been ever since.

As his business grew, Andrew developed a business philosophy that seems to be shared by many successful entrepreneurs: You’re not just selling a product; you’re developing relationships.

“When someone walks into the store, whether they buy something or just want to find a place to eat, we want them to have a positive experience. We want to improve their vacation.” Of his soft-sell approach to sales, he notes, “The money part fluctuates, but whenever I was stressed about money, no one would buy anything anyway.”

The shop is small (an advantage of selling a small product), with sunglasses that start at less than $20, though most are in the $100 to $250 range. At Summer Shades, Andrew says, “you get a bigger selection, prices that are the same or lower [than off-Island], a locals’ discount, help with repairs, and you’re helping the local economy....I try to make it so there’s no advantage to shopping off-Island.”

In 1988, Andrew branched out to Block Island. “One store could have afforded us to live here, but not be financially comfortable.” Over the years he’s had so many locations he has to guess at the number: “Maybe forty?” He says, “I’ve had many failures....More stores failed than succeeded. You just have to stay focused.

Just deal with adversity and move on,” he continues. But he admits luck matters: “Every time something came serendipitously, it worked out great. When I forced it,” he says, “it ultimately fell apart.”

Now he has three shops: in Edgartown, Nantucket, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He has tried other seasonal resorts, like Lake Tahoe and Newport. “Seasonal businesses are hard,” he says. “Either the owner is there, or someone who treats it like they own it.” Thirteen years ago he turned over day-to-day operations of the Edgartown shop to manager Sarah McDonnell. Another trusted long-term manager runs the Steamboat Springs store, and his mother has run the Nantucket location for twenty years.

Andrew also opened year-round stores in premium outlet malls, and those stores generally thrived. “People don’t have the same expectations of a store in a mall.” But they still required oversight, and, he sighs, “a lot of paperwork.” So he sold five locations to the international chain Sunglass Hut.

“You move to the Vineyard for the quality of life, not to be super rich,” he says. “If I still had those stores, I couldn’t be president of the Little League.”