When a former co-worker mentioned “The Umbrella Factory” several years ago, it was somehow the first I’d ever heard of it. I was stunned that such a place existed – right in my home state, no less! She described it as “sort of a hippie place in South County that sells art and gifts and has farm animals and gardens and stuff” – so, nothing to actually do with the manufacturing of umbrellas, I garnered. Sufficiently intrigued, I added it to my summer “must see” list.
I have since visited multiple times during different seasons and found that my associate’s description wasn’t all that far off. The Fantastic Umbrella Factory (officially) resides on a lovely rural road in Charlestown and describes itself as a “19th century farmyard shopper’s paradise and international bazaar.”
Near the rustic parking lot and entrance stand multiple wooden buildings housing charming gift shops, boutiques and galleries. Winding paths pass by lush, beautifully tended gardens (in summer) peppered with fountains and intriguing statuary. Further back, farmyard fowl roam the grounds or live in pens. In a much larger fenced-in field live the incredible, three massive emus and their friends, the two goats. To look an emu right in its sharp, sentient eye as it makes guttural prehistoric noises at you is worth the trip in and of itself. A short trail off to the side beyond the emu/goat enclosure leads to the bamboo forest – an evocative, sacred-feeling place that made me wonder if I’d somehow tripped through a mystical portal to Japan.
The Umbrella Factory does feel like a surreal “hippie paradise” in some respects, and you might wonder how it has been able to survive through the economic highs and lows of Rhode Island’s past 48 years. To answer that and many other questions, I spoke with David Turano, who purchased the Umbrella Factory five years ago with his wife Linda from its original owner, Robert Bankel. The Turanos had leased a shop at the Umbrella Factory since 1972, nearly its inception, so taking over felt like very familiar territory for them.
David, a potter, originally rented space upstairs in the old barn (which burned down in 1989 and was later replaced) along with a glassblower and a leather worker. He later started the Small Axe Productions shop, which he continues to run with his wife and daughter, who handles most of the buying for the main store as well as a small boutique in Watch Hill. His son Gino and his girlfriend take care of the grounds, and everyone pitches in on overall maintenance tasks and improvements; it’s very much a family business.
The Umbrella Factory has survived and even thrived thanks to this type of collaborative effort and “by being very frugal about everything,” says David. “It’s not an extravagant place. The previous owner did pretty much all of the maintenance work himself, and my family is still continuing that same philosophy.”
On Route 1A, there isn’t much other commercial business going on, so you have to come to the Umbrella Factory as a destination. David’s noticed that in the few years they’ve had it, they’ve been getting more and more business. “It’s definitely seasonal, but in the high season, the parking lot has been pretty much full every day, it’s both a blessing and a curse,” he says. Visitors are both locals (his definition of which includes the entire state) and tourists, with seasonality certainly influencing the percentages of who visits during which times.
Small Axe Productions has a cafe recently leased out to a new chef, Chris Erickson, who has developed an excellent summer menu, according to David. A nearby structure houses the upstairs South County Artisan’s Loft, managed by Deborah O’Connor. The loft serves as a storefront for different local artists and craftspeople that share the rent and space to exhibit their wares. It’s tough not to find a treasure among the more traditional mediums like paintings and pottery, ranging to exotic gifts like lit-up old liquor bottles and seashell-encrusted light switch covers (I’ll admit, I couldn’t resist picking one up during my last visit). Because the items rotate regularly, it’s fun to stop in periodically and see what’s new.
Beneath the artisans loft is Axiom, which specializes in vintage eyewear, 100% soy candles and other antique odds and ends. Frills boutique carries imported clothing “for the funky soul” and similar wares to Small Axe, and the General Store at the front of the establishment features candies, childrens’ gifts and novelties. The greenhouse, run by Patrick Shellman, is full of many exotic and beautiful plants for purchase. Block Prints Graphics sells graphic tees, while glitter temporary tattoos and hair wraps by Maria Ledwith are also available.
The bamboo forest struck me as so unusual that I had to ask David more about its origins: “Some people say it was planted here, but I believe the bamboo forest was native when Robert bought the place. There are actually stands of bamboo all around Rhode Island, but right now, all of it is dead. I’ve looked at stands in other places, and they’re all dead like ours; there might have been some kind of blight that came through. There are new shoots coming back, though.”
This past winter appears to have been rough in other ways, too. The resident animals and chickens are housed in a canvas tent during the colder months (but building a new barn for them is a “top priority,” David says), however the ducks are free to roam. Unfortunately, most of them seem to have disappeared over the winter, perhaps to a hungry coyote or two. The often-unpredictable nature of extreme seasonality in New England clearly presents its challenges for a mostly outdoor establishment, but it also provides a stunning backdrop; the key to survival appears to be a willingness to roll with the proverbial punches (and an occasional fire or two).
What’s new for this season? “A lot of the gardens became neglected before we purchased, so we’ve been working hard on them,” says David. “They look great now. We have a big dahlia garden this summer. We’re also scheduling a lot of work on the house, which was built in 1809. Between the house and the grounds, it’s a full time project, but we’re glad everyone can come and enjoy it.”
The Fantastic Umbrella Factory
4820 Old Post Road, Charlestown