Bald Head Island Conservancy

Written in the Sand – 40 Years of Stories: The Story of Susan Baker & Elyse Armitage

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This month’s stories written in the sand take us inside Turtle Central Gift Shop, the Conservancy’s non-profit store. Starting as a small t-shirt stand operating out of the old Generator Building, Turtle Central has grown into a must-stop, not just for shopping, but for discovering all that Bald Head Island has to offer. With the recent opening of Turtle Central’s The Hatchling Hut and their feature in Seaside Retailer (click here to read), there are many things to celebrate about Turtle Central. This month, we are telling the stories of two women who have played an important part in making these successes happen. Susan Baker and Elyse Armitage are long-term volunteers, Islanders, and tremendous stewards of the Conservancy and its mission.

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Director of Retail Operations, Pam Smith (left) with Susan Baker (right)

The Baker family has visited Bald Head Island for over 30 years. Since the beginning, Susan Baker says she handled the shopping, though she’s “not much of a shopper.” Baker’s go-to was Turtle Central. She chose to shop with Turtle Central because she knew that the profits went to the Conservancy, which she has always regarded as the “heart and soul of BHI.” Baker wonders, “Who wouldn’t? It was not just a shop but a source of information about what was going on at the Conservancy.”

Baker soon expressed interest in volunteering at Turtle Central, which was, and has remained, a privilege to her. “Working with the dedicated staff there has provided me with the opportunity to help a little bit with the shop and spread the word about the impressive work of the Conservancy.”

Outside the shop, Baker has also been involved with the Conservancy’s Sea Turtle Protection Program, and, impressively, has participated in all the birding programs that the Conservancy has offered over the years. Along the way, Baker started a birding log, which she still keeps to this day. Later, Baker served on the Conservancy’s Board of Directors for five years, which she found “very informative.”

She recalls the “many gifted leaders” that have been at the forefront of the Conservancy, highlighting our current Executive Director, Dr. Chris Shank. “Working with Chris Shank is a pleasure. His scientific background and approach to the work of the Conservancy has advanced its mission of preservation, conservation, and education.”

When asked about the memories she has made on Bald Head Island, she recalls two that have stuck with her the most. “What can compare with witnessing a mother Loggerhead nesting on a BHI beach?! Maybe when the nest hatches or boils on a starlit night…” After spending the winter months home in Louisville, Kentucky, “the calls and sightings of our Painted buntings when they return in May are a welcome memory” for Baker and her family members. One of the highlights of Bald Head Island to Baker is that “every season of the year offers distinctive experiences. There is always something going on at the Conservancy.”

While on-Island, Baker also makes a habit to visit the beach everyday to walk, or just take a few minutes to meditate. “The ocean is the reason I come here and I never forget that.” Something that she appreciates about the Conservancy is that it, too, “seems to get that and is respectful and protective of this amazing resource.”

Touching once-more on the privilege of volunteering at Turtle Central, Baker believes that “volunteering and being involved at any level with the Conservancy enriches the BHI experience. All of us who care about the special ecology and beauty of our island home can pitch in and find a way to contribute one way or another.”

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Elyse Armitage greeting shoppers behind the counter at Turtle Central

The Armitages first began visiting Bald Head Island around 1995 after seeing an advertisement on the back of an issue of Southern Living magazine. Alike many visitors, Elyse Armitage was intrigued by the idea of golf cart transportation. Armitage’s first rental was in the villas for one week, which soon turned into a regular two week trip. In 2005, they bought a property in Timbercreek. “When it became apparent that I would be living here full-time we sold Timbercreek and bought our house on Pintail in 2018.”

Now a resident, Armitage began volunteering at Turtle Central, where she has remained a familiar face every Monday for ten years. Throughout, Armitage has seen many changes in management and a palpable growth in the store. “We were a little old T-shirt shop mainly with some souvenirs,” she recalls. “Now, as you know, we have amazing clothing and outerwear, and, more importantly, we carry a large range of sizes.” To Armitage, this is what makes Turtle Central stand out as a shop. “People are amazed at the variety of products we have, including snacks” – Armitage’s personal favorite. “What I tell everyone about are the dill pickle pretzels.”

When asked about her experience as a volunteer, what stuck out Armitage to is that “everyone who works at Turtle Central becomes an instant friend. Even after people leave, the relationships remain.” She highlights Director of Retail Operations, Pam Smith, and Former Assistant Manager (now BHIC’s Business Specialist!), Amy Dunmire. “I am particularly fond of Pam and Amy. No matter how silly our mistakes and how many times we ask the same questions, they never lose patience with the volunteers. That is truly a gift and something I appreciate greatly.” She also adds that the quality and variety of the products – including the popular pretzels – are a labor of love and thanks to the efforts of Turtle Central’s current team.

Outside the shop, Armitage can often be found at the Bald Head Island Club, where she plays mah-jongg twice a week. Here, and all thoughout Bald Head Island, she never fails to get questions about where she got her outfit. “Of course, my answer is Turtle Central!”


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