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Island Profile: A cornucopia of happiness for local businesswoman
Mary Lou Eichhorn is an Island institution, having owned the gift shop Cornucopia on Shelter Island for more than 30 years in three locations. She’s also active at the Presbyterian Church, where her late husband was a visiting minister and ran the Food Pantry with Mary Lou.
Her working career did not start out in retail. One of four sisters, she grew up in College Point, Queens and went to high school there. She married a few years after graduation in 1957, had two children, Tim and Joy, over the next three years and moved with her family to the Mineola area, where she began work in real estate.
The profession simply “fell into her lap,” she said during a recent chat. The man she and her husband bought their first home from told her he was going to retire and asked if she’d be interested in taking over the business.
“I said, ‘I know nothing,’ and he said, ‘It’s easy. You go to school, you get your license and that’s it.’ I told him my husband would never really let me work. He said, ‘That would be fine, because you can take the children with you.’”
“We had a station wagon,” she added, “and they’d sit in the back and play games while I showed houses. So it was absolutely perfect.”
Mary Lou has never had to look for a job and she’s always loved whatever work she did. “I always say the good Lord gave me the opportunities and I took them.”
But her husband was not so lucky. Within the next few years, he contracted an illness, perhaps Hodgkins lymphoma or perhaps the result of Korean war wounds, but at one point was given six months to live. He made it 10 years. Although there were many extensive hospitalizations during those years, the “death sentence” was lifted. He died in 1975, when Mary Lou was 38, after 16 years of happy marriage.
A year and a half later, selling real estate in New Hyde Park, she sold a house to a widower with grown children. After the sale was final, he asked her if she’d like to go out to dinner. When she asked what made him think she was single — she was wearing a wedding ring, after all — “He said, ‘My daughter thinks we’re in the same position. You just don’t want to take your ring off.’”
“And I said, ‘Your daughter’s right. So we went out to dinner, had a few more dates and the rest is history.”
She married Jordan Eichhorn, her second husband, in 1978. He had two adult children, a son and daughter, four and six years older than Mary Lou’s. His children took over the house Mary Lou had sold him and he moved in with her.
Within a few years after that marriage, Jordan had a heart attack. Working in the printing business in lower New York City, he was advised to take some time before returning to his job. The couple thought they’d vacation on the Island, where Jordan had often visited his children when they both went to Camp Quinipet.
“When we stepped off the ferry, I said to him, ‘We’re meant to live here.’ He thought I was crazy.”
But staying at the Pridwin, on a rainy day, she wanted to look at real estate. They did and it wasn’t long before they bought one of builder Peter Reich’s homes — he’s now a partner at Reich-Eklund Construction — and when the doctor advised Jordan against going back to work, they moved here year-round in January 1980.
And wondered what to do next.
They were in Mike Zavatto’s deli, where the Eagle Deli is now, when Mary Lou noticed that the rear two rooms, “really nice spaces,” were empty. She asked Mike why. His answer was, “Why don’t you put a shop there, Mary Lou?”
“Jordan looked at me,” Mary Lou recalled, “and said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, what do I think?’ and he said, ‘Didn’t you always want a shop?’ and I said ‘yes.’”
She thought of gifts right away. They went out the next day and had business cards made up. They visited gift shows and managed to get excellent advice. They opened the one-room gift shop that October. It wasn’t long before the small, thriving business needed more space and an archway was added into the second room.
Four and a half years later, retired city detective Matt Bonora bought the house next to the Tuck Shop and offered Mary Lou five rooms on the ground floor. She could see a wonderful arrangement. She and Jordan moved there with the shop and remained 10 years. When Matt became ill and wanted to sell the house, Mary Lou was heartbroken. But almost immediately, she was offered her current location, beside the Eagle Deli, where she had begun so many years earlier.
“So the way opened up for us and here I am and here I’ll stay,” she said.
She and Jordan had done some real estate work here on the Island but she had no desire to continue after Jordan’s death in 2000. She loves her gift shop: “This is a happy business,” she said. “When people come in, they’re happy, they’re buying a gift for someone they love or celebrating something nice. They’re not cranky like at the IGA. They don’t get impatient.”
Looking at Mary Lou’s life from the outside, it would be easy to see her as unlucky, especially after the death of her son, Tim, two years ago, from cancer. But that’s not the way she sees it. Her view is quite the opposite. She feels blessed with two happy marriages, work that she loves, and family, including Jordan’s children, Lorraine and Andrew, who have rallied round for her, especially after Tim died.
He and Jordan are both buried here behind the Presbyterian Church. “I have eight grandchildren and five great-granddaughters, and they’re so important to me.” Many Islanders met Arianna, one of those great-granddaughters, who spent her first six months in a playpen in the shop while her mother was recovering from an illness.
Mary Lou continues her work with the Presbyterian Church, taking over for Jordan as a visiting minister; she also does some home care before and after work. It’s not hard to see why her calm and easy acceptance of all life has to bring might well be a comfort to others.