Kathy Fields retires; New owners carry on the Crafty Yankee tradition

By Denise J. Dubé

Pictured in front of Crafty Yankee are three generations of owners. They are (L to R): Sandi Simon (store manager), Cooper Robbins (new co-owner), Kathy Fields (former owner), Carla Fortmann (former owner), and Maddie Robbins (new co-owner). (photo by Jim Shaw)

Change is inevitable but not always welcome. If you’ve walked or driven through Lexington Center, you already know that Kathy Fields is retiring and Crafty Yankee is closing by January’s end. Don’t panic. Kathy, an icon in the town’s business world, hand-picked the new owners – no, really, she did – and after a bit of paint and the installation of a new wood floor, Crafty Yankee reopens in late March.

“It’s been fun,” Kathy said. “It’s a store that belongs to the people, whoever they are wherever they live.” Some of those people live far from Lexington, and she still hears from them. The new owners probably will too. Kathy bequeathed the store to the Robbins family, but she will still have a vital role moving forward.

Kathy chose the new owners, the Robbins family, wisely, keeping the store and the town in mind. Melissa Robbins owns and represents a manufacturing company. The two have worked together for more than 20 years. Melissa is the mom of 22-year-old twins Madison (Maddie) and Cooper, and their younger brother, Griffin, 21. The three adult children will run the store with oversight from Mom and Dad (Bob), and of course, Kathy.

Maddie, also a representative of the same company, has worked with Kathy and Crafty Yankee for about five years. She jumped feet first into Crafty Yankee, and you can find her there a few days a week. She’ll be joined by Cooper as soon as he finishes his degree. Griffin, a software guru who works on business websites, will take over the website ― www.CraftyYankee.com. Griffin will have his hands full. “The website has exploded,” Kathy said. “People have not wanted to leave home.” The store was closed for three months because of COVID, but that didn’t stop Kathy – or sales. She started including more and more of her merchandise online, and the selling never stopped. “It kept me alive,” Kathy said. “The next owners are getting a robust store and a website that’s equally robust.”

They’ll also inherit Kathy’s annual philanthropic holiday effort, The Holiday Giving Tree. Every November for the last 26 years, Kathy has filled the branches of a tree with cards, each containing the need or wants of someone affiliated with Bedford’s Minuteman Senior Services. It’s so popular the cards are gone three weeks after Kathy puts up the tree.

The landmark shop was originally the brainchild of Carla Fortmann and Kate Baty and started in 1975 with a few craft shows outside Carla’s home. “We dreamed of having a shop,” Carla said. At the time, Kate made candles and Carla ceramics. They learned through a friend in 1980 that space on Muzzey Street was available. They dove in and rented the two-rooms upstairs. Anticipating locally handmade items, they aptly named it the Crafty Yankee. One room held classes; the other was a consignment store. “We had baskets, lampshades, gingerbread houses, herbal wreaths, cake decorating, a ton of classes,” Carla said of the lessons and items she and Kate offered.

Carla Fortmann (left) and Dottie Simpson (right) welcome new Crafty Yankee owner Kathy Fields in 1994.

In 1985 Dottie Simpson joined Carla and Kate. Eventually, they moved to Massachusetts Avenue and still held classes downstairs, which later became Kathy’s office. By 1995 their time was over. The women sold Crafty Yankee to Kathy, a like-minded woman who came with extensive business savvy and a community-minded attitude.

Kathy was a New York marketing and merchandising executive who worked at Dillard’s and later Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy’s. She was more than willing to take the mantle and expand their dream. She still buys local but has grown her inventory to include American made and fair-trade products. Anything sourced outside the country’s borders has a story that is connected to America or Lexington.

“I don’t sell anything people need; I sell things that people would love to have or give to someone else,” Kathy said. Her shelves are filled with handmade jewelry by local silver and goldsmiths, exotic candles, artisan glass, ornaments, scarves, ceramics, and so much more. (Everything through December is 20 percent off. In January, Kathy expects to have further sales.) “My whole mantra for the store was that it would be called the community giving store,” Kathy said of her belief in the three C’s: customer, community, and craftspeople. Before she brings in something new, she asks herself: “How is the community going to appreciate this.” One popular item started with Carla. Shirley Lane’s made hand-knit owl sweaters were popular. Kathy kept those in the store until Shirley’s recent death.

With Kathy’s expertise, the store grew and became even more popular. A consultant suggested hiring someone to run the store. She found Sandi Simon, who, Kathy said, was and is warm, welcoming, and engaging. That was 17 years ago. Sandi fell in love with the store, and the two are good friends. “She remembers customers, what they bought, and their kids,” Kathy said. “Sandi gave me my life back. She comes in at 9 a.m. and doesn’t leave until the last customer walks out. She is the face of the store.”

Sandi also gave Kathy more time to improve the shop and work with the community. Her New York background focused on women’s accessories, including jewelry, scarves, handbags, and personal indulgences. Her experience was put to good use – not just in her store, but in other Lexington shops. Because Kathy’s a merchant and a marketer, she could see the voids along Massachusetts Avenue. “It was a center where people would come,” she said.

She reached and still reaches out to help others start businesses or just to help them grow. Kathy, on the Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors – for the second term – is also one of the founding members of the Lexington Retailers Association. Kathy, Carla said, is an unsung hero and her concerns go beyond Crafty Yankee. “She appreciates the larger picture that Lexington sits in.” Maddie, who has only been there since November, has noticed the same. “She’s always willing to share any information she has to make others successful. She is one of the most professional people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”

Nannette Cole, the manager of Fancy Flea, located across the street from Crafty Yankee and Eric Michel- son from Michelson’s shoes, situated a bit further down Massachusetts Avenue, are sad to see Kathy retire and appreciate the help she has given them and other local businesses. “I adore her,” Nannette said. “She’s given her heart and soul to the community and will help anyone.”

“We’re going to miss her,” Eric said and spoke of her efforts with Discovery Day, the Halloween Walk, and holiday events. “She’s one of those rare community-oriented business owners,” Eric said. “She’s always been out there working for our businesses and community events. She has gone above and beyond to help people and the center,” Eric said. “That’s a rare thing to find in a local small business owner.

More importantly, she’s not afraid of competition. She even encourages it. “One of the really unique things about Kathy is she’s never been afraid to have other stores similar to hers come into town,” Eric said. “She always sees it as a plus, mainly for the town. Not all business owners feel it’s their responsibility to reach out and work with other businesses to make Lexington center attractive to shoppers.”

No worries. Kathy isn’t going far.

She’s still on the Chamber of Commerce’s board and part of the Lexington Retailers Association. And, she’ll be assisting with the Crafty Yankee transition.

Carla is thrilled that Crafty Yankee lives on in a third iteration, and Nannette is happy she’s going to have some free time ― maybe.

Congratulations to Kathy and Sandi on a well-deserved retirement, and welcome to Maddie, Cooper, Griffin, Melissa, and Bob.

Crafty Yankee is located at 1838 Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington Center. You can also visit them online at www.CraftyYankee.com.

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