The day after Thanksgiving, John Chirgwin, Island native and longtime owner of the Golden Door in Edgartown, will set off for his home in Bangkok. His trips abroad are too many to count, at this point — he’s been traveling the globe since his post-college years in the early 1960s. But this time, there will be no Golden Door when he makes his way back home. Mr. Chirgwin’s trusty shopkeepers will finish up the year in his absence and then close the Door for good.
“In recent years it just hasn’t made sense for me to carry on,” said Mr. Chirgwin in an interview at the shop early this week. “This is the worst year, almost in history, to try to sell things, especially nonessentials. Nothing in this store is essential.”
Essential, perhaps not. But imaginative, mysterious and exotic, it certainly is. For more than 40 years the Golden Door has served as a passport to the Far East — and to Africa, the Middle East and other strange and fascinating tucked-away corners of the globe. It holds craftworks from around the world — there are Tibetan drums carved from human skulls, delicate antique ivory statuettes, beaded baby carriers from Borneo. Inspired by the different pieces he saw during his travels, Mr. Chirgwin originally set up shop in 1965 with a small collection of the treasures he was able to carry back with him.
That summer, Mr. Chirgwin temporarily left his post as a worldwide tour manager and decided to try his hand as a merchant in his hometown. He rented the former Mildred’s Yarn Shop on North Water street and made use of what little resources he had to make the space fit to sell the pieces he had collected. He covered the linoleum floor with a coat of barn paint, careful to try to disguise the hole left by the former occupants when they removed a small woodstove. He covered the smoke-stained walls with burlap sheets and used found materials to fashion seats for customers and displays for the artwork. Most of the items he sold were made from lightweight material that was easy to carry as he traveled, including Thai silk or cotton clothing and scarves, and drawings and paintings removed from their heavy frames.
He kept unusual hours — often closing up to head off to the beach on a nice sunny day. He’d reopen after dinner, much to the chagrin of his father, owner of the Daggett House in Edgartown, who was constantly fielding questions about his son’s fluctuating hours of operation.
“I didn’t make much money, but I made more money than I would have if I had been painting fences for my father or cutting lawns,” said Mr. Chirgwin. “It relieved me of that responsibility. So that’s how the store started. I was there for two years.”
The Golden Door moved through seven different locations around Edgartown over the years. One landlord likened Mr. Chirgwin to crabgrass; as soon as he got into the space, things just sort of expanded. Today, the shop on North Summer street can barely contain his collection, accumulated over nearly half a century. His love of travel has not quelled in all this time, nor has his appreciation for the artifacts that represent the people and cultures he’s encountered.
On the Island, Mr. Chirgwin keeps a home above the shop, but it is just one home base of several around the world. He currently splits his time between his home here and a hotel suite in Bangkok. He also keeps a condo in northern Thailand and a house in Bali. He’ll spend the next few months traveling among them, taking various detours along the way. But he’s made some plans for the artwork he’ll leave behind.
Everything will be highly discounted in a store closing sale over the next month and a half, and anything not sold here or in individual sales off-Island will be put away. “I’ll put it in storage and assemble collections and attempt to move those at a later date,” said Mr. Chirgwin. He had people in this week to check out his collection of tribal art, which he expects will be moved off-Island and sold in an estate sale. Some other pieces need a bit of restoration, like the massive wooden structure hanging outside the building, a façade from a temple in northern Thailand. The piece is decorated with colorful shards of mica. “Having left it out this long, some of the [pieces] have fallen off,” he said. “If I can find some more, I’ll do a little bit of reparation.”
Mr. Chirgwin has at least one piece in mind for an art museum: a giant carved wooden storyboard from a village in New Guinea. “It comes from a root that comes from this tremendous tree,” he said. “I was in the village and no one had been there for awhile, so they had a nice collection. I bought them all. They were the biggest anybody had seen.” He has considered selling or possibly donating the piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There is far too much to take in during one visit to the store. Dazzling jewelry and elegant jade, beaded purses, children’s clothing and ornaments carved from human and animal bone. It’s like a treasure chest, with something new to catch your eye at every turn. “It’s easier to buy than it is to sell,” said Mr. Chirgwin, and it’s clear that he’s learned from experience.
He has no regrets as the time to say goodbye to the store he’s kept for decades looms closer. But he does seem to sense that the time is right to stop. “It’s very easy just to keep going with something even if you know it’s not making a profit,” he said. “I probably should have made the decision in June . . . and if I’d been aggressive about selling, I could have finished up in a flourish.”
Either way, he will continue on as usual. “Life goes on,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going to do much different. I’ll still have the art. I’ll still travel.”