By Suzanne Besser
Dressing store windows with selected merchandise has always been a powerful tool merchants use to draw in foot traffic. Sequined dresses, glitzy bling, stunning stilettoes, clear cut crystals and delicate ornaments placed in the windows of Charles Street boutiques now call out to holiday shoppers passing by.
But what if the merchandise sold inside a shop are, well, just plain tools themselves? Can hammers, paint cans and screwdrivers catch the eyes of those walking by?
They do at the Charles Street Supply Company & Hardware Store, thanks to the charming, fun loving Cassie Gurnon, the interior designer behind its main store window. The creativity and unique style seen in all her design projects, whether they be decorating an entire home or sprucing up a tired room, is evident in the window displays she designs for the community to ponder and giggle at as they make their way down the street.
A quick glimpse at the three glitzy Christmas trees now in the store window makes one stop for a closer look. The fanciful trees are cleverly made of flower pots and paint cans decorated with hammers, brushes and screw drivers tucked alongside jingle bells, pine cones, flowers and fruits – all sprayed with silver paint.
“I like to try to find a little whimsy in the hardware, to play on words with the items or simply give a new meaning to a usually not so interesting item,” said the unabashedly creative Gurnon. “I hope the displays are inviting and interesting for people to look at while possibly finding that little bit of humor in the display itself. Truly, who doesn’t want to make a hammer beautiful?”
Always incorporating merchandise sold in the store, in past years she has built fanciful Christmas trees of bright red shovels or gleaming paint cans. Last year’s was made of whiskbrooms, decorated with reindeer heads lit up by batteries in their antlers and smelling of pine scent air fresheners.
Often her humor pokes fun directly at Beacon Hillers. Two years ago the hardware store staff was besieged with complaints about an ‘epidemic’ of rats in the neighborhood. For her Halloween display, Gurnon included battery-operated rats that breathed and squirmed in mousetraps when activated by sound. In her classic playful spirit, she then dressed as a rat inspector and went out trick or treating with husband Jack dressed as a giant rat.
This season the store’s mousetraps showed up again, clipped to the beaks of three owls perched atop the silvery Christmas trees.
Known for her big heart, great compassion and love of the neighborhood, Cassie doesn’t limit her designs to showcasing the hardware store. Over the years, she has dressed the window to support local institutions, such as Hill House, Advent School and the Nichols House Museum. She created a themed window display of broomsticks to promote the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Clean, Sweep, Repeat campaign a few years ago. She and Jack then hosted a reception when former Mayor Thomas Menino presented the neighborhood’s most diligent sweepers with a special Golden Broom trophy she had fashioned from whiskbrooms.
Cassie’s love of interior design “just sort of organically happened,” she said. A native of Milwaukee, she came to Beacon Hill in 1983 after earning an art degree at Endicott College. Initially she waitressed at Victoria Station, but a position at a Pappagallo store across the street caught her eye.
“I began work there by cleaning shelves, arranging things, and then migrated to window design. It was a case of natural intrigue. I wasn’t trained in design. It just happened,” she said. Soon she found herself dressing the windows of fourteen Pappagallo stores.
After ten years, she left Pappagallo to strike out on her own. Word of mouth spread quickly and her client list grew, ranging from Shreve, Crump and Low and the JFK Library to shops in the Chestnut Hill Mall and Faneuil Hall. About the same time, her interest in arranging flowers blossomed. She once created 270 floral centerpieces in her apartment for the Democratic National Convention.
Like most Beacon Hillers, she was a loyal customer at the Charles Street Supply Company. ”One day in the late 80s, I told the staff they really should let me do their window,” she said. “To which longtime employee Norman Solari replied ‘What! are you trying to take my job away?’”
She got the job. Norman still has his job. “And, the windows went from one shovel alone to something really creative,” she said. “I had to save them from themselves.”
The hardware store’s owner Jack Gurnon became her right hand man and helped out with many of her client’s installations, including troublesome ones. She recalled the evening she dressed a window at Faneuil Hall using fake snow and lighting on the floor. At 3 am, she woke up worrying about the possibility of fire and made Jack drive her down to make sure all was well. Another time he accompanied her to Harvard Yard in the middle of night to decorate a window there. Regardless, they were married in 1996.
Nowadays Cassie devotes her time to her interior design business Cassie Gurnon Interiors, where she tackles little and big projects as well as consulting. She limits her window dressing to the hardware store. Jack still helps. “I have to prepare Jack the night before we change the window in order to keep his blood pressure down,” she said teasingly.
“Cassie thinks in terms of rainbows and bubbles but to make the window conform to her ideas, I need magic and nuclear propulsion and a shot of bourbon to get things hung the way she wants,” Jack said in his characteristic dry humor.
It was easier to install the window designs, they both say, when the couple’s now college age twin daughters were small and could easily fit into the window. Now Jack struggles to squeeze himself into the tight space.
“None of this is work to me,” said Cassie. “I do it because I love doing it. Any space gets my creative juices flowing, and I try to create a little humor for the neighborhood I love.”
And how do those passing by react to Cassie’s designs? “It’s a wow,” said Jack. “All day I see people looking and taking photos of the windows. And every time they look at it, they see something new – like the little mouse stuck in the owl’s mousetrap.
Does the window dressing draw foot traffic into the store? “No,” said Jack. “It doesn’t. Sometimes people want to buy the fluffy decorations like the silver jingle bells and artificial silver leaves that we don’t sell, but the window doesn’t bring them in for the paintbrushes and screwdrivers. But that’s not what why we are doing this. We are just making a statement.”