BEST OF THE MIDWEST
BLESSEDLY MALL-FREE, WISCONSIN’S DOOR COUNTY LURES VISITORS WITH ITS NATURAL BEAUTY AND DOWN-HOME STYLE RETAIL SCENE.
Byline: Rebecca Kleinman
Outside of the Midwest, most Americans probably couldn’t find Wisconsin on a map.
So it’s probably safe to say that their noticing its thumb-like peninsula stretching northeast between Green Bay and Lake Michigan is slim to none. “Well, that’s just fine,” think its residents and those lucky enough to have made its discovery, because without being on the way to nowhere or known for those long, Wisconsin winters, this gorgeous area would surely be ruined.
In actuality, Door County, or simply called “The Door,” makes up 80 percent of the thumb, spanning some 20 miles south of Sturgeon Bay, its only city, to Rock and Washington islands. In between lies a resort haven that has experienced several tourism booms, beginning in the late 1890s, when wealthy Chicagoans started coming via steamers.
“That they were well-off and cultured had a lasting impact on the development of the place. It still appeals to people of taste,” said Tom Lyons, marketing director for the Chamber of Commerce. A second boom occurred in the Fifties, followed by a doubling in tourism from one million to two million visitors in the early Nineties.
Upon first sight, why they choose this place over more well-known destinations is no mystery. “It’s like Cape Cod, Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur all rolled into one,” said Sverre Falck-Pedersen, co-owner of the Thorp House Inn and Cottages in Fish Creek, Wis. But unlike most resort communities, Door County hasn’t fallen prey to developers, particularly of national chains. Other than in Sturgeon Bay, there’s not a Wal-Mart, Target or fast-food restaurant in sight, and all mall action takes place south in Appleton and Green Bay, Wis.
Besides its natural good looks, Door County relies on its Scandinavian roots and old-fashioned charm to attract diners and shoppers. Several experiences have evolved into annual pilgrimages, like watching the goats graze atop Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant’s grassy roof, biting into a pecan roll from Grandma’s Swedish Restaurant and Bakery, or wolfing down a burger and shake underneath the red-and-white-striped awning at Wilson’s. Fish boils at The White Gull Inn and buckets of candy galore at The Confectionery also tend to make the to-do list year after year.
Of the 600 or so retailers who call The Door home, it’s those selling handmade goods that give the area its unique twist. Many a tourist has gotten lost on its back roads looking for designer Gloria Hardiman’s studio, where she weaves colorful garments of silk, mohair or wool with her schnauzer puppy at her feet. More on the main path, The Gift To Be Simple’s Carol Hoehn has become well known for hand-painting denim, knits and washable silk. Despite the chamber’s efforts to drum up tourism during the “Quiet Season” with winter sports, sleigh rides and Christmas festivities, retailers still feel the effects of a seasonal slump. The majority close down in November or after the New Year and don’t reopen until May.
“Most people come up here with a dream and don’t realize that the bank intends to be paid every month. The tourism business is not for the faint of heart,” said Lyons. Following are retailers who welcome the challenge.
Charlotte Iverson answered hip girls’ prayers all over upstate Wisconsin when she opened Sturgeon Bay’s blueivy last summer. Thanks to the former Dayton Hudson marketer from Minneapolis, fashion-forward shoppers can now get their hands on the same brands they see in national magazines.
“Before, my customer couldn’t find what she needed locally. She would have to drive to Milwaukee or Chicago,” said Iverson, who carries contemporary and young designer lines, along with cosmetics by For Joseph, Quick Reflex, C.C. Outlaw, Love Amour and Bloom.
With customers ranging in age from 20 into their 40s, she hopes to offer “modern, urban, contemporary looks” for both mothers and daughters. “I want to establish an ageless look here — one that’s not dowdy. Moms are working out more and want to look good. I think the whole fashion industry in heading in this direction,” said Iverson. Already, local reaction and sales have outdone projections, surprising Iverson most of all.
Retailer and Egg Harbor, Wis., native Jane Lautenbach is about as Door County as they come. Growing up above Casey’s Inn, her family’s business of 50 years, also taught her the perks and pitfalls of the resort business. That experience must have had a lasting impact, because after hopping around various boutiques and galleries elsewhere, she established her own store, Jane’s, back in 1995.
Today, her store offers a mixture of wearable art and misses’ lines, such as Cynthia Max, Faith, Lee Andersen, Moule and Lynn Cantin. Accessories are Elite and Captiva belts and Dancing Cats tapestry and fabric handbags. Buying at her original markets and shows, Lautenbach’s ongoing goal has been fine-tuning her mix. “I like everyone to feel that they can come in and buy something, even if it’s an $18 pair of earrings,” she said. Lautenbach’s next task is remodeling the boutique from top to bottom. “It still has the same decor from when I opened on a shoestring budget. I need to throw out the Wal-Mart shelves!” she explains.
The Whistling Swan
The Whistling Swan glides down a corner of Fish Creek’s Main Street, adjoining a very popular inn by the same name. Both businesses, along with The Cygnet Shoppes, children’s stores in Fish Creek and Egg Harbor, Wis., are owned by the Roberts family. Looking to escape the rat race in Milwaukee, the family bought the 19th-century inn in 1996, converting the former house’s central conservatory into a women’s wear and children’s boutique.
Luckily, Laurie Roberts, who runs the store with daughter Emily Roberts Johnson, had grown up in the suburban Chicago retail scene, giving her the extra advantage of understanding where her clientele is coming from. “My customer has sophisticated taste. She recognizes quality and is willing to pay for it,” said Roberts, whose sales totaled about $800,000 in 2000.
Last year, she got great response with some French and Spanish lines, yet the bulk of her inventory are the tried-and-trues: Susan Bristol, Sigrid Olsen, Carol Anderson, Robert Scott/David Brooks and Barbara Lesser. Roberts reports buying tons of scarves, handbags, shawls and jewelry styles. Charming pink and floral decor make it the quintessential stop for a day of mother-and-daughter shopping.
Hide Side Boutique
Naive to the resort business, Milwaukee transplants Judy and Michael Surges brought a sailboat with them when they moved to Door County 15 years ago. Not surprisingly, the sailboat was sold shortly thereafter. “Now I just watch people sail and golf from the store,” said co-owner Judy Surges, who keeps Hide Side Boutique’s doors open until 9 p.m. seven days a week during peak season and four during off-season. Though a hard sacrifice to make, those long hours have paid off. Not only have the Surges become fixtures of the downtown Fish Creek scene, with their boutique sales totaling about $500,000 in 2000, but they have earned expert reputations within their primary direction: leather goods.
Their niche began when Michael, who sells leather goods at Hide Side Outfitters locations in Fish Creek and Egg Harbor, Wis., realized he could easily make equivalent or better products. Judy broadened the concept for the boutique by introducing other luxurious materials like real and fake fur, and velvet, velour, wool or suede patchwork. She specializes in unique coats, dresses, blazers, overalls and smaller items from both recognized and obscure labels.
Looks range from Remy’s lightweight, butter-soft leathers to Mary Flanagan’s custom, patchworked outerwear to Spencer Alexis’ mother-of-the-bride and special occasion dresses. Other lines include Jones New York, Nancy Bolen for City Girl, Sante Fe Creations, Damselle and Brighton.
Once upon a time, Mary Stephens moved to Florida, only to beat a hasty retreat back to those much-complained-about Wisconsin winters. “I like Door County because it has water and diversity. There’s theater, music and art, plus you can ski in the winter. And it’s a great place for artists to do business,” said Stephens, owner of What’s Next in Fish Creek, Wis.
Aside from running the store, she manufactures What’s Next, a custom-order line of wearable art with more than 500 U.S. accounts. The line is known for its quality fabrics, ranging from polarfleece to silk and for its abilities to travel well and cross over into different occasions. In addition, she offers handknits, embellished items and handcrafted accessories from other resources like Beth Nash, Taylor G. Dallas, No Blu, Amy Roth sterling and gold handwoven chains and Terri McCarthy brooches, pendants and earrings. Naot and Ariat shoes also are important.
Though tourists, many of her customers have become regulars, dropping in twice a year for wardrobe consultations. To pull in some new business, she advertises in all of the chamber’s guides and playbills, noting, “They’re a trapped audience at intermission!”
The Magic Jacket
Debbie Frank, the owner of The Magic Jacket, was a high school art teacher at the opposite end of the state when she found out three years ago her favorite store was closing. “I thought, ‘Where am I going to buy my clothes?’ So I bought it to save it,” she said. Having absolutely no retail experience, she attributes much of her success to the store’s already-established name. Since its initial opening in 1985, The Magic Jacket has become more or less an institution for wearable art. Frank continues the tradition with lines like Blue Fish and Anny & Adi Jacobson, while mixing in updated lines like Stephanie Schuster.
Shopping Chicago, Dallas, New York and art shows, Frank reports that it’s really her customers that determine the store’s direction. “Someone will see something in a store and call me saying, ‘I just have to have it,”‘ she said. Accessories are important in promoting the store’s playful mood. Customers can mix and match fun hats, gloves and scarves or pick up unique jewelry made with vintage buttons or beads. The 900-square-foot shop’s whimsical theme carries over to its hand-painted walls and woodwork. Open year-round, The Magic Jacket tallies sales of about $300,000.
A natural-born retailer, K.B. Miller discovered his latent talent while vacationing in Ephraim, Wis., when a boutique owner asked him to fill in during an emergency. After he sold a great deal of clothes in a few short hours, he found himself hired on the spot.
Fast forward to more than a decade later, and Miller is now the owner of that business. Simply called K.B. Miller, his boutique caters to the jet set, a clientele that includes both second-home owners and their friends nationwide. Playing the role of a casual Bijan, Miller’s niche is high-end service to the extreme. That could mean anything from stocking a client’s closet before she arrives to actually getting on a plane for a drop-in wardrobe consultation. “I save them time. There’s no second guessing for them, either,” he said.
To make shopping even easier, merchandise is displayed in head-to-toe looks. Miller doesn’t do the obvious; he’ll put a tweed jacket with brightly colored instead of black pants. Such attention to detail results in a 95 to 100 percent sell-through on pieces from lines like Margaret O’Leary, Barry Bricken, Bill Burns and Belford, with yearly sales of about $500,000.
The Cherry Tree
The Cherry Tree in Ephraim, Wis., takes its name from the orchards belonging to the great-great-grandfather of owner Marjorie Anderson’s husband. Upon retirement, the couple moved from Virginia into the same Sister Bay, Wis., house built by his Swedish ancestors. In 1980, she took her first-ever leap into retail, riding the classic preppy trend. Lately, she’s turned her attention toward updated lines, but still has the customer “who looks for Susan Bristol.” Other bestsellers include Marina Designs, Canvasbacks and Marjorie Baer, which she finds in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas.
Grossing about $300,000 in sales last year, she reports it’s tough being a retailer in a seasonal wonderland. “People used to come up for a week. Now they come up for long weekends, so you don’t see them,” she said.
Renee of Door County
Not being in a high-traffic area, Renee Jaroscak, owner of Renee of Door County in Ellison Bay, Wis., knew that she had to come up with something unique and wonderful to make tourists pull over. So she turned to lush landscaping, a fancy sign and a black and red Model A Ford sitting out front.
Renee’s interior delivers just as much stimulation. “Women respond so much to sensory stuff,” said Jaroscak, who chose decor that looks “like you’re inside a canopy bed.” Amid homey elements like a chandelier, French doors and white, cotton poplin curtains, shoppers carefully peruse cases and racks chock-full of gifts, accessories and clothing. Jaroscak spent 18 years designing a line of wearable art cardigans and sweatshirts before opening her own store in 1990. Called Renee, the line is exclusive and is sold alongside Flax, Blue Fish, Campers and Focus Fashions. But it’s her signature cardigan that creates a stir. “Someone will wear one to a restaurant and by the time she leaves, everyone will know where she got it,” she said.
Finding Chicago markets a little intimidating, Jaroscak prefers shopping Minneapolis. She reports sales of about $300,000 in 2000, though they’ve increased annually. This spring, Jaroscak’s second store will open in a 19th-century schoolhouse next door.