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Shelter Island Profile: Mary Lou Eichhorn | Keeping a beloved institution thriving

It’s not quite a hidden jewel — there’s a sign out front — but it is a Shelter Island jewel many pass by without noticing.

Tucked back from West Neck Road next to and to the rear of Eagle Deli, a gravel driveway opens out to a spacious parking place for an Island institution, the Cornucopia Gift Shop. The dictionary describes the word as “an abundant supply of good things,” which sums up Mary Lou Eichhorn’s delightful shop, which she has owned and operated for 40 years in three different locations.

On a recent visit, chatting with Ms. Eichhorn, the door opened and Amy Cococcia entered. “You know what I want,” she smiled at the owner, heading straight to the front of the shop to a display of handcrafted candies. Picking out a package of Oreo-like cookies covered in white chocolate, she said, “They’re addictive, usually gone by the time I get to the car.” (The same, it can be reported, for the caramel/sea salt confections.)

She and Ms. Eichhorn spoke for a while, which is another feature of Cornucopia — a place to pass the time of day that, wherever your gaze lands, you discover beautiful things. The gift shop has everything from fine glassware engraved with the map of the Island to every kind of souvenir, jewelry, picture frames and albums, candles, wallets, purses, music boxes, games, puzzles, fine writing paper, greeting cards and — it’s no exaggeration — much more, including an extensive baby and children’s department.

Almost everything is handmade, including sewn and embroidered tea towels and potholders, all created by local artisans. And there’s free delivery on Shelter Island.

“I couldn’t survive without local artists,” Ms. Eichhorn said, and many of the latter would return the sentiment.


Her solid business sense and personal perseverance got Cornucopia through the worst months of the pandemic, and is now ready for a normal summer of visitors, she said.

In March of 2020, when all non-essential business were ordered to close, Ms. Eichhorn didn’t panic.

She began making calls to inform officials that she has been a notary since 1980, and customers were calling for her services. In addition, she began stocking hand-crafted masks made by her daughter, Joy — she’s sold more than 600 — and hand sanitizers. She was soon allowed to open Cornucopia and stayed open seven days a week.

Still, she noted, “Bills were hard to pay. I couldn’t have made it without my customers helping out with lunches — treats to say ‘thanks’ for staying open — and a customer with the gift of money to help pay the rent.”

Another customer, who works for the Small Business Administration, helped secure a $1,000 grant.

Several lives lived

Her working career didn’t start 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 Albertson in Nassau County where she then began work in real estate.

The real estate profession, as later becoming a shop owner, simply “fell into my lap,” she said. She and her husband Alexander bought their first home from a man who told them he was going to retire and asked if she’d be interested in filling his spot in 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, and he said, ‘That will 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.”

Ms. Eichhorn 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,” she said.

But Alexander was not so lucky. Within the next few years, he contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma, perhaps the result of Korean war wounds that “had filled his chest with shrapnel,” Ms. Eichhorn said. At one point he was given six months to live. Alexander made it 10 years.

Although there were many extensive hospitalizations during those years, the “death sentence” was lifted. He died in 1975, when Ms. Eichhorn was 38, after 18 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 — “He said, ‘My daughter and son think we’re in the same position. You just don’t want to take your ring off.’”

“And I said, ‘Your daughter and son are 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 Ms. Eichhorn’s. His children took over the house she had sold him and he moved in with her after they were married.

One year later, Jordan had a heart attack. Working in the printing business in lower Manhattan, he was advised to take some time before returning to his job. The couple thought they’d vacation on the Island, where Jordan had visited when his children 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.”

Staying at the Pridwin, on a rainy day, she wanted to look at real estate. It wasn’t long before they bought a house, 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 Ms. Eichhorn noticed that the two rooms in back, “really nice spaces,” were empty. She asked Mike why. His answer was, “Why don’t you put a shop there, Mary Lou?”

She thought of a gift shop right away. They went out the next day and had business cards made up. They visited gift shows and managed to get good advice. They opened the one-room gift shop that May. In October 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 Ms. Eichhorn 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, Ms. Eichhorn was heartbroken.

But almost immediately, she was offered her current location — a former tack shop for equestrians — 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 his death in 2002. She loves Cornucopia. Looking at Ms. Eichhorn’s life from the outside, it would be easy to see her as unlucky, especially after the death of her son Tim, 10 years ago.

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.

Tim and Jordan are buried here in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery. “I have eight grandchildren and eight great-granddaughters, from 3 to 22, and they’re so important to me,” she said. 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 childbirth.

“I have such gratitude to all who cared so much to give a helping hand,” Ms. Eichhorn said. “I’ve truly been blessed to be here with Cornucopia and to be needed. This is a happy business. When people come in, they’re happy, they’re buying a gift for someone they love or celebrating something nice.”