BANGOR — Quick and light, the Peruvian music poured from overhead speakers, filling the compact store on Central Street with a spiritual familiarity.
A poster of Machu Picchu, the immense Incan sacred city, hangs on a back wall, while sweaters — soft to the touch and colorful to the eye — decorate other walls.
One of the most recent additions to the downtown Bangor experience — Peruvian Alpacas — specializes in Peruvian merchandise, including alpaca sweaters, rugs and silver jewelry. It made its debut last month, opening just in time for the Christmas season. But on this quiet Wednesday, proprietor Karina Norero Pomroy — in between telephone calls, faxes and the occasional visitor — busily readied her store for this week’s official grand-opening celebration.
Two visitors arrived, one after the other, to go over last-minute business details with Pomroy. Efficiently, Pomroy dealt with both — an electrician and advertising salesperson — answering their questions and explaining clearly what she wanted. Spotlights will be shining in time for the grand opening. The radio advertisements should be direct and to the point, she said.
That done, Pomroy took a quick breath and slid behind the cash register-desk in the back right corner of the shop, which was covered with a colorful blanket and piled high with postcards and brochures. Beside her, the business phone-fax machine, for a moment, sat idle.
“This is a big change in my life,” Pomroy said, smiling. “Sometimes I wake up and ask myself, `Is it really true?’ I didn’t think I could do it so quickly.”
Four months ago, the 25-year-old native of Peru never thought she would even come to America, let alone own her own business. Now, she has done both.
The story starts five years ago, when Pomroy started writing letters to a friend of a friend, Michael Pomroy, who was raised in Bangor. Those letters soon turned into costly phone calls. Eventually, in March 1997, Michael — a Christmas tree farmer-Kid’s Peace worker-apartment owner — visited Peru for the first time. It was not long before the two were engaged to be married.
Pomroy didn’t know exactly what she was getting herself into when she boarded an airplane to begin her new life in Maine four months ago.
She didn’t get homesick, she said. It was more a combination of feelings, including loneliness, because she didn’t know many people, and frustration, because she hadn’t spoken English since graduating from high school 10 years ago.
“I couldn’t understand people, couldn’t speak with them and I was so frustrated,” she said in fluent English. “I thought to myself, `I hope this isn’t a mistake.”‘
Before leaving Peru, Pomroy worked as an assistant manager, selling thousands of Alpaca sweaters to distributors worldwide. So when she moved to Maine she already knew a lot about the business and had developed contacts.
The goal to open her own business wasn’t driven by huge profits, but rather a need to hold on to her country. It gave her a chance to really connect with Maine people and share her country’s rich culture and history. “I didn’t know how really proud I was of my country until I came here,” she said, somewhat amazed.
This week, Pomroy started classes at the University of Maine. She is taking a business class to complement her international business administration degree from the Exporters Institute in Lima, as well as an English class at UM’s Intensive English Institute. Future goals include becoming a translator and, she said, opening additional shops in Boston and Quebec. “I am an optimist,” she said.
Since Peruvian Alpacas opened two weeks before Christmas, across the street from Cadillac Mountain Sports, business has been steady. Pomroy credits location, as well as the neighboring stores, for drawing in Christmas shoppers — even before a sign was placed in the window — to peruse the racks of soft, colorful sweaters.
“I am really pleased,” said Pomroy. “I get to make contact with the people. I love these people. Somebody told me, `Hey, how are you?’ I just wondered, `Do I know this person?’ I didn’t, but it was really nice.”
Pomroy’s stock of sweaters is made from the fiber sheared from alpacas — domesticated animals similar to llamas that once were considered sacred by the Incas. Her sweaters carry a price tag between $60 and $75. In Peru, she said, the same sweaters are sold for $300 or more.
The fiber is comparable to wool in strength and warmth but is as soft and delicate as cashmere, she explained. The alpacas are sheared about once a year, yielding enough fiber to make about six sweaters. No animals are hurt during the process, stressed Pomroy. And she guarantees that each sweater has been pieced together by hand “always in a community,” she said, not in sweatshops.
“I know the sweaters are unique,” she said. “But my view of business is different. It’s not to sell, but to show the people of Maine what Peru is, how rich its history is … Five years ago I wouldn’t say I was Peruvian. Now I am so proud.”