Beehive Handmade celebrates 25 years in business

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 4/9/24

This unassuming Water Street shop in downtown Warren holds a fascinating story of true love, determination, and a quarter century of success.

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Beehive Handmade celebrates 25 years in business


Let’s get the eye-rolling (but entirely essential) cliche out of the way right up front:

Jim Dowd and Sandra “Sandi” Bonazoli are most definitely a couple of busy bees.

The friendly couple can be found most times throughout the week buzzing around their shop at 332 Water St., which you probably know better as Beehive Handmade. This year will mark the 25th anniversary of them launching the business together, and that’s a story worth telling.

Jim and Sandi met in art school at UMASS Dartmouth, both a part of a jewelry and metals program the school offered. Sharing a mutual love and appreciation for the art of fabricating and making things, the two graduated in 1997, and married in 1998.

As many young couples looking to make a career of the arts experience, they were plunged into a world of odd jobs and searching for an artistic calling. That calling came at a trade show in February of 1999, where the two went with a handful of sample objects they had designed and made — utilitarian objects that were handmade, high-quality, and practical for personal use or as nice gifts to give.

“We wrote $30,000 in orders,” Sandi recalled. “We came back and we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we don’t even have work benches, how are we going to do this? I didn’t know the difference between a sales order and an invoice. We knew nothing.”

What they did know, as evidenced by that trade show experience, was that they had found a niche in the market for their particular brand of skills at an opportune time before the domination of the internet and big box stores.

“The things we were trying to do weren’t like anything else out there,” Sandi said. “We kind of got into this market, the gift industry essentially, at the peak of that industry.”

The couple grew their brand awareness by frequenting more trade shows, which at the time were huge events drawing thousands of artisans, trend-setters, and members of the media. As a result, their products wound up on the must-have lists of celebrities such as Martha Stewart, and within the pages of nationally-syndicated magazines, including Oprah Winfrey’s “O”, “Better Homes and Gardens”, and “Country Living”.

Sandi reflected on the fortuitous timing of their entry into the handmade gift scene, as it could be a bit more difficult to find ways to stand out today within the modern, overly-inundated media landscape.

“At the time, it was kind of expensive and a lot of work to do these trade shows, but you knew there would be a return,” she said. “Now there’s just so many different ways to get the word out.”

Their journey to Warren
For a long time, Jim (a Dartmouth, Mass. native) and Sandi (a Newton, Mass. native) worked out of a couple of spots in Fall River. In 2015, they moved to Wood Street in Bristol, occupying a space in the mostly-abandoned industrial park and moving out of there in 2020 back before it became the renovated, rejuvenated hot spot of activity we know today as Unity Park.

Part of the reason for the move was that an old mill building in the heart of downtown Warren had become available in the autumn of 2019.

“My husband always loved this building for some reason. He just thought it was great,” Sandi said. “We went to look at it, and I walked 15 feet inside the building and thought, yeah, this is perfect.”

Formerly the home of a woodworking business, the historic Moyes Garade (c.1915) needed a lot of work to become the tidy, streamlined hive of gift making activity it is today. Windows needed replaced, decades of wood dust needed to be cleaned up, and utilities needed upgrading.

Ironically enough, it was the pandemic that actually provided the necessary time and resources to do it correctly. While other small businesses saw total devastation in their sales due to the loss of in-person visits, The Beehive had no retail space and a thriving online store with a strong shipping infrastructure already in place. Online sales saw a near 100% growth during Covid. Federal and state aid money provided more boosts to help with the renovations and improving the website.

“It was completely terrifying because we had just borrowed all this money and we had plans to have a store and we were so excited to be a part of the Warren community and all of that just fell away,” Sandi said of when the pandemic first began. “But looking back, it was almost the only way we could have done it. We’d do our work at our old address and then come here at night, and it worked out for our contractors because they could come in here when it was empty and work one person at a time.”

Once the health crisis calmed down, the couple could go forward with the original plan to open a retail space in the front of the store — a whimsical, brightly-lit showcase of essentially all of their offerings, from handmade, personalized pewter silverware and holiday ornaments, to chic ceramics and products sourced from other artisans, like handblown glass and linen napkin sets. They also sell items to various gift shops around the region.

Looking around the retail space, you can tell that it’s the realization of an important goal and point of passion for Sandi.

“I feel really committed to working with brick and mortar stores because it might just seem like they’re a gift shop or whatever, but places like that gives towns personality,” she said. “I don’t want to live somewhere where it’s just CVS and The Gap. You need people who are passionate and out there creatively curating a beautiful experience for people. That is a very valuable thing to have on Main Street, USA.”

While the products are more expensive than you’ll find at a big box store, relative to some of the more boujee shops you might find throughout New England they are actually very reasonably priced, especially considering the effort that goes into making them and the quality with which they are made.

“When we first started, we were kind of in that world of the $500 bowls. We came from an art background. We were used to galleries and tablewares being put up on a pedestal. We just didn’t want to be that, because it just didn’t feel like the context that we wanted for it,” Sandi said. “Our products are handmade, and made in this country, so it’s going to be expensive just by the nature of it. Some things we make are more to the commemorative, heirloom things like baby and wedding keepsakes. We do try to have some nice everyday things that are elevated and special but not crazy expensive.”

So today, any time between Tuesday and Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., you can probably find Sandi and Jim tinkering away inside The Beehive, designing a new item, fabricating chain links for a necklace, or on a day like Monday, fondly recollecting on 25 years of hard work and dedication to their craft.

“Any time that I sort of feel discouraged or whatever, I look at the reviews people write about our products and how genuinely happy they make them,” Sandi said. “The fact that we can actually spark a little bit of joy in someone’s morning, that means a lot and makes me feel like we’re not doing something superficial.”

Open studio and ‘grand opening’ happening on May 18
To commemorate their opening in Warren, which never really happened as it occurred in the midst of Covid, Jim and Sandi are inviting the public to a special 25th Anniversary/belated grand opening event on May 18. They will open the studio to show demonstrations of their manufacturing techniques, with refreshments served.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.