We had the good fortune of connecting with Mike O’Connor and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mike, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I simply needed a job. On Cape Cod, in 1983, there weren’t many opportunities. Plus, I didn’t have the skills needed for the few jobs (construction, fishing, landscaping) that were available. A friend had his own successful retail business, so I decided that if he could do it maybe I could, too. Basically it was the case of no one would hire me, so I hired myself. As the saying goes, do what you know and what you enjoy. I was a birder. Now what? How does that pay the bills? Then it hit me: Book stores sold bird books, camera shops sold binoculars, hardware stores sold bird feeders and garden centers sold birdseed. A single shop that had all of those items under one roof, run by someone who had knowlege about those items just might work.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Before I opened my shop I delivered coal for a living (really). I worked for my friend Larry, who owned a small business, Stove Place II (shout out). Larry excelled in customer service, product knowledge and honesty. I learned from him that if folks were happy with what they purchased and were comfortable with the process, they would come back. That’s important in any business, but especially in a small town. I had no formal retail training (delivering coal doesn’t count), but I knew it was important that my new shop (likely the first shop to be totally dedicated to bird watching) didn’t have the cookie-cutter look found in the malls of the early ‘80s. People come to Cape Cod for something out of the ordinary, not a business concocted in a boardroom on Madison Avenue. Things in my shop needed to be different, whether it’s our odd opening time (9:17AM) or handing out a pencil in exchange for a joke (no joke, no pencil). My goal was to make sure folks remembered their visit.
Speaking of being “remembered”: I never respond to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” with, “Good, and you?” It’s too robotic. I actually tell folks how am feeling. (That will teach them to ask.) And I don’t tell people to “Have a good one.” (Gag!) I try to make a comment to each customer so she or he will remember our exchange. I may make a remark about their car, or where they are from or what they are wearing. Anyone brave enough to be sporting a Yankees hat in my shop will definitely remember visiting.
Speaking of being remembered, again: For the last three decades, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we give away potatoes. There’s a catch, however. We only dole out the potatoes into a person’s hat. (Yes, you read that right.) We will fill any hat, big or small, and even a Yankees hat (although we aren’t happy about it). When folks ask why we do it, we tell them it’s to save turkeys. Our theory is: people filled with potatoes will eat fewer turkeys. It’s all about the turkeys…and being remembered.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Ha! Keep in mind that in addition to being a shopkeeper, I’m also a bird watcher. When friends visit we go looking for birds – even if they don’t want to. First I’d take them to Fort Hill, a Cape Cod National Seashore property and one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Don’t challenge me on that.) Although there is no fort and barely a hill, this small 100-acre preserve has hosted over 300 different species of birds, assorted land mammals, ever-changing mounds of wildflowers and, if it’s a good day, whales spouting just off shore.
Nauset Beach is the next stop, but only if it’s the off-season when the parking is free and the crowds have gone back to work. My friends will search for driftwood, shells and beach glass, while I’ll look for sandpipers, loons and gannets diving into the waves of the mighty Atlantic.
Finally, I’ll give everyone a break from bird watching and head up to Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape, to watch the sunset from those famous dunes. After dark is the time to stroll Commercial Street and survey Provincetown’s own assortment of non-cookie cutter shops. Eventually, we’ll choose one of the town’s many eclectic spots for dinner. Some claim that Provincetown has the highest concentration of quality restaurants in the country, but I’m not saying it. I already stuck my neck out on the Fort Hill thing.
On the way back to Orleans we will stop at one of the countless beaches that line Cape Cod Bay. Here we’ll step out of the car and into the dark to take in an expansive view of the Milky Way, and perhaps see a shooting star or two. (I’ll also be listening for owls. Birders never stop birding.)
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that my family and friends were supportive; but let’s face it, they really didn’t have a choice. My family knew if I went down, they would go down with me. And my friends backed me up because they were simply my friends. That’s what friends do, right? My note of appreciation goes to the residents of Cape Cod, in particularly the good souls on the Outer Cape. I’m actually not sure if my quirky little bird watching shop would have succeeded anywhere else but here. Unlike friends and family, the area locals had choices and options. Yet, they supported my business from day one and have continued to do so nearly forty years later. A big thumbs up to them.
All images were taken by the staff of the Bird Watcher’s General Store.