Paulette Kasmer opened Polka Dot Parlor — vintage-to-hipster women's clothing and a kitschy cornucopia of wooden bow ties, 10-cent Squirrel Nut Zippers candies, and plastic donkeys that smoke tiny cigarettes — in sleepy Bristol Borough in October.
The purple-haired, irrepressibly upbeat Kasmer was gambling that Mill Street, the once-bustling, long-battered main drag in the ancient Delaware River town, would somehow spring to life and support a boutique for "everyone with a sense of humor and a little edge," she said.
Last week, she proudly pointed to a black corset-back tank top held together with red ribbon laces and said she had only one in each size, small to 3X, because, "I don't want you to see another girl walking down the street in the same black corset with the same red ribbon."
Before this year, there was no danger of that ever happening on Mill Street.
Despite having the waterfront Lions Park, a sycamore-lined riverbank trail, spring-to-autumn gazebo concerts, and Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and African American festivals, Bristol Borough's business district was dormant for decades.
Too many vacant storefronts on Mill Street gave silent testimony to persistent hard times.
And then, suddenly this year, Bristol Borough's ship came in. Twice.
In February, it beat out 14,000 other small towns in 50 states to win a $500,000 makeover in Deluxe Corp.'s "Small Business Revolution: Main Street" contest. The beleaguered business district is already showing signs of what half a million dollars in professional physical and marketing revitalization can do. Bill Pezza, a tireless Bristol Borough booster, and Raising the Bar, his nonprofit civic organization, got out the online vote to deliver the little-engine-that-could victory.
Then, just before July Fourth weekend, the long-awaited, $3 million floating day-docks and new fishing pier opened, a godsend for boaters and merchants alike.
Bristol's riverbank breakwater of big boulders protects the town from flooding but also prevented boaters from cruising in and coming ashore for meals and shopping.
The 25 new day-docks – government-funded, privately maintained by Bristol's Grundy Foundation, and free to all boaters – have been bustling, as they were on a recent weekend.
Wearing his weathered Eagles cap and sitting near his Eagles cooler, Robert Dorr from East Torresdale in Philly relaxed in his 19-foot Maxum Runabout. Dorr, who has cruised the Delaware River for 13 years, was awaiting his family's return with Mexican takeout from the Mill Street Cantina.
"Before these docks opened, there was nowhere to tie up in Bristol," he said. "We've been coming here every weekend since they opened. Ain't nothing like being on the river."
Rich Cordisco, a Bristol native, tied up his 31-foot SunRay Corsaro, the good ship "Suck It Up!" — "It sucks up gas and I'm always telling my kids to 'Suck it up!' so it works for me" — and said he and his party of five were headed ashore for dinner and drinks.
"Before these docks, we would just drop anchor in the river and listen to the music," Cordisco said as a local rock band played oldies in the gazebo. He said he was happy to finally be able to come ashore in his hometown after a day cruise on the river.
"Stores would come here and last a year and close down," Cordisco said. Now, he said, they have a chance to survive.
At Polka Dot Parlor, Kasmer agreed, saying, "Winning the Small Business Revolution contest put the wind underneath our wings and we're flying now."
She looked around at her wildly colorful women's clothing. "I help women set up outside their comfort zone," she said. "I want you to have an 'Aha!' moment when you walk in."
Talk about "Aha!" moments. Bucks County's oldest town – settled by English Quakers in 1681 and claiming the county's first post office, courthouse, public school, paved road, mill, and African American church – now has the Noble Earth wellness teahouse offering so-21st-century kombucha, and the equally hip Calm Waters Coffee Roasters.
Already attracting a loyal following, the newcomers seem to signal better days ahead for Bristol Borough, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, population has declined since 2010 from 9,726 to 9,534, the median household income has fallen from $47,693 to $41,701, and the poverty rate among families with related children under 18 has increased from 13.6 percent to 15.9 percent.
The 2017 main street makeover is too new for statistical data, but Bristol Borough Manager James Dillon said business owners were reporting 300 percent sales increases, and Bruce Lowe, co-owner of the waterfront's historic King George II Inn, established in 1681, said the influx of weekend sailors in his dining areas had been "extraordinary."
"A younger crowd, the 21-to-30 set, is coming into town," said Megan Hems, who has co-owned Hems Truck & Auto service center with her husband, Roland, for 10 years. "We're getting trendy down here."
Hems credits Bristol's rebirth to the makeover and technical advice from Deluxe Corp., a national check-printing and small-business consulting firm.
She said the first-prize package included a personal session with Robert Herjavec, star of Shark Tank, the reality show where self-made millionaires give wannabe entrepreneurs the chance to realize their business dreams.
"I sat down with Robert Herjavec and he wasn't a shark that day," Hems said. "During our interview, I kept going back to the fact that I only have a degree in psychology, and I must've said it too many times. Finally, he said, 'Wait! Stop! I only have a degree in literature. But I'm not Robert the literature degree. I'm Robert the business owner.'"
Hems said Herjavec told her to remember she had 10 years' experience in the auto and truck repair business so she should stop putting herself down with the just-a-psych-degree talk.
"He told me, 'Own it, lady!' " Hems said, "That was an 'Aha!' moment for me."
TV crews are filming Hems, Kasmer, and other Bristol Borough entrepreneurs for an eight-part Small Business Revolution – Main Street Hulu TV series, co-hosted by Herjavec, to be shown in September.
Hems said Bristol Borough "has always been fighting this stereotype that it's a poor area. Finally, there's good news to celebrate here. We can rival New Hope and Yardley. We can be New Hope. We can be Yardley. We have the same waterfront."
Bristol native Robert Angelaccio, for 14 years chef and owner of Annabella's Italian Restaurant on Radcliffe Street, just off Mill Street, said he hoped his little town's big infusion of new visitors show up in his remodeled dining room to eat the home cooking he learned from his mother, the late Annabella, whose photos grace the walls.
"We were decently busy until about 2008, which began a long stretch of trying to stay alive," Angelaccio said. "At one point, it was down to just me in the kitchen. I guess somebody else would have closed the doors, but that's just not in my makeup."
Now, he said, more people are coming into town from the boats that are finally able to dock along the waterfront.
"There are new businesses on Mill Street instead of empty buildings," Angelaccio said. "There's more foot traffic than I've seen in a long time. People are coming into town wanting to see what all the scuttlebutt's about. We're still not there yet, but people are interested in Bristol again."