YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – While the pandemic accelerated the shift to online shopping, some stores remain places that you just have to visit in person.
Invariably locally owned, they develop a sense of community among customers that is based on devotion to brands and a love of seeing – and touching – the newest items.
There is also the surprise factor.
At Ivory & Birch 7631 Market St. in Boardman, folks often stop in to buy a certain item but then are smitten by another that catches their eye.
“Lots of people come in for a baby gift and end up buying an outfit for themselves, or vice versa,” says owner Deloran Thompson.
Others don’t know what they want but expect to find it there. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know what to get but I know I have to buy something for my mother-in-law,” explains Thompson.
Ivory & Birch has gifts that range from $5 to fine jewelry that costs up to $3,000. It also carries women’s apparel, scarves, handbags, fashion jewelry, baby items, some men’s gifts and housewares.
While in-person sales are its largest segment, Ivory & Birch also shows its wares at ShopIvoryAndBirch.com. “A lot of people use our website to see what we have,” Thompson says, “but the majority [of sales] is still brick and mortar.” The store implemented a contactless pickup system during the pandemic.
“The website has grown, especially with the bigger brands, but the majority of our customers like to touch and feel what they’re buying,” Thompson says. “They like to come in and go home with something.”
Merchandise tends to be separated by brand name at Ivory & Birch. Occupying a corner of the store is the display of MacKenzie-Childs home décor – the store’s most popular items. The artsy objects are known for their checkerboard patterns and whimsical design.
“I joke that it’s the adult American Girl doll,” Thompson says. “You start with one clock and before you know it, the whole kitchen is MacKenzie-Childs.”
Other top selling lines include Ugg boots and slippers, and Mariposa Clothing.
Ivory & Birch also has a section of clothing with hometown themes, as well as chocolates made in the region.
The store is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It will add Sunday hours after Thanksgiving for holiday shoppers.
Gracylane is another example of a gift shop that defies the online trend with a customer base that likes to browse in person.
In fact, the Southern Park Mall store recently moved to The Shops at Boardman Park, next to Peaberry’s, because it needed more floor space.
The gift boutique is owned by Thom Grober. In addition to the original store in the Eastwood Mall in Niles, and the Boardman store, Gracylane has locations in Hudson and at Millcreek Mall in Erie, Pa.
The shops – named for Gober’s pet dog, Gracy – focus on helping customers find the perfect gift.
“This store has good energy,” says Leslie Raslevich, manager of the Boardman location. “We just want everyone who comes here to be happy and have a good experience.”
The store has a spirit-lifting charm that makes web sales unnecessary. In fact, Gracylane doesn’t even have a website.
“People who shop here want the in-store experience,” Raslevich says. “They want to try on jewelry, touch and feel it. They want to shop small and locally. We have customers who say ‘I don’t want to buy this online – can you find it for me?’”
If the chain has the item but in one of its other locations, they’ll drive to get it and bring it back, Raslevich says.
Gift ideas range from T-shirts to baby items to high-end jewelry, as well as home decor and dishware.
“We have so many beautiful jewelry lines that range from $20 bracelets to handcrafted Mariana crystal pieces made in Israel,” Raslevich.
Another top seller is Uno de 50 jewelry, which is handcrafted in Spain. “They used to make only 50 of every piece but it became too popular and they can’t do that anymore,” Raslevich says. “But they kept the name. They are very unique pieces.”
The store carries handbags by Vera Bradley, as well as the more expensive all-leather Hobo handbags. Vera Bradley bags range from $150 to $200, while Hobo runs from $400 to $500.
“We have customers who follow individual lines, such as Brighton Jewelry,” Raslevich says. “They want to see what’s new and when the new stuff is coming in. They’re obsessive about it and only wear Brighton Jewelry.”
One line that is already a red-hot seller this season are BruMates, which are decorative insulated metal can coolers. “They fit all sizes of cans and come in so many colors,” Raslevich says. “There’s a gold leopard print.”
Gracylane is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 to 5 p.m.
HIS AND HERS
Tucked away in a small plaza on state Route 46 in Austintown, near the entrance of the Hollywood Gaming Racetrack and Casino, is His and Hers Home Furnishings.
Like others in its field, the store has a clientele that it lures almost exclusively by word of mouth. Diners at the adjacent Calaveras restaurant also “discover” it, says Dave Byler of Warren, who owns the store with his wife, Julie.
His and Hers offers furniture by Ashley, Coaster, Lane, American Wholesale and Chairs America. Customers buy furniture off the sales floor – the store has very little room for storage – and usually take it with them.
There are also décor items, decorative carpets, small gifts, and a section dubbed The Barn Loft that is dedicated to artsy items made locally from repurposed materials.
The store has a website HisHerHomeFurnishings.com but gathers most of its sales through its Facebook community. “I post what we have every day, and [customers] message us, call us, make purchases over the phone,” Byler says. “It’s very active.”
While furniture sales are not seasonal in nature, Byler says sales of home décor spike in the fall and again before Christmas.
The key to picking furniture merchandise is discerning what people want, says Byler, who leaves that part of the business to his wife. When asked what furniture is selling at the moment, he responds with two words: “Gray sectionals… Anything in the color gray is hot,” he says, “and every time we get in sectionals they go out as quick as we get them.”
His and Hers Home Furnishings, 5511 Silica Road, Austintown, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sure, Infinite Consortium Gaming is just a store. But it’s also the gathering space for a community of tabletop gaming fans, a place to find out what’s new, connect with other gamers and maybe spend a few hours.
Owned by Tom and Michalena Vaughn of the Sharon, Pa., area, Infinite Consortium will open its second store on or about Nov. 6 in Eastwood Mall. The original store remains at 162 W. State St. in downtown Sharon.
It’s a store for gamers, but there is nothing electronic. Board games, LEGO kits, card games and collectibles line the shelves of the new store.
The Sharon store hosts game tournaments and Vaughn plans to eventually do the same in the new mall location.
With tabletop games being the main item, Infinite Consortium has exceptionally strong store appeal to its customers.
Games such as Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Catan, Cards of Humanity, Ascension and Warhammer are on display. There is also more traditional fare, such as Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble.
ICG also stocks collectibles, plushies, dice and other gift items.
There are also war games, which come with miniature figures that the gamer first has to paint. It’s like two hobbies in one.
The success of the Sharon story made opening a second location logical and even necessary.
“We had expanded into space next to us in Sharon and had grown as far as we could there,” he says. “The next step was to get another space. I was a little concerned that [Niles] was a little too close [to Sharon] but the mall generates so much clientele. It attracts everyone.”
Vaughn, and all ICG employees, wear shirts that say “Gaming adviser.” It’s a role he enjoys and embraces.
“We do nerd, geeky culture,” he says, using the vernacular for games and collectibles with a fantasy flair. “It’s games and hobbies that you do in your free time. We’re trying to be your third space, after home and work.”
Customers occasionally wander in looking to buy PlayStation games or hardware. Vaughn has to send them away.
“I tell them, “we have nothing electronic.’ Get your friends and family together around the table,” he says.
Gamers travel to the Sharon store from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Erie, Pa., for tournaments.
“It’s how you build community,” Vaughn says. “You go to an event and make friends for life. It’s not just about sales.”
Vaughn invested at least $30,000 in preparing his Niles location, replacing carpeting and buying display racks. His inventory added more to that total.
“It’s a big leap, and kind of scary,” he says. I’m hoping people come out and buy stuff. Fortunately, I have my other store and it helps me gauge what sells and what doesn’t.”
What is selling now are many of the familiar names.
“Pokemon is huge,” Vaughn says. “The collectability factor is off the charts. It’s never been more popular.”
Collectors often bring Pokemon cards to the store to get price estimates. “They bring expensive cards, $1,000 and up, and ask if it’s real,” he says. “They trust us with their property.”
Infinite Consortium Gaming in Eastwood Mall will be open seven days a week: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
While many stores are having trouble finding employees, that’s not an issue with these locally-owned specialty shops.
“We haven’t had an issue finding people who want to work here,” says ICG’s Vaughn. “There are not a lot of board game stores and this is their passion.”
Getting inventory and special-order shipments is another woe that has escaped him for the most part.
“I have a good rapport with my distributors,” Vaughn says. “That relationship goes a long way. We are getting enough of what we need to sell. I haven’t been hit as hard as others.”
Ivory & Birch’s Thompson echoes that sentiment, but it was her proactive approach that kept her in good shape as the holiday season nears.
“I realized in early summer that [supply chain problems] were going to happen so I front-loaded my orders [with fall merchandise],” she says. “We’re in a good spot for the holidays.”
Rising shipping costs, however, are not something she could head off. “They’re going up,” Thompson says. “Every vendor has tacked on a shipping surcharge. So even though we have the merchandise, the profit margins are more of a struggle.”
Gracylane store manager Raslevich says her location is experiencing some delays. “[Merchandise] lines that would normally take two or three weeks to arrive are taking 10,” she says. “With Christmas coming, we’re telling customers, ‘Don’t wait too long to start shopping.’ We’ll have plenty of stock in our store but we could sell out of that one item that you want and won’t be able to get more in time.”
Like Thompson, Raslevich has no trouble finding employees. “People want to work here,” she says.
Because His and Hers Home Furnishings is a mom-and-pop outfit, co-owner Byler has no trouble finding help: He or his wife are almost always there as the sole employees.
But shipping delays have hit the furniture industry particularly hard.
“We’ve had stuff on order for three or four months for customers,” he says. ‘What we’re hearing from the furniture industry is that it will stay this way until the first quarter of 2022 before things open back up. It’s been a struggle ever since COVID hit.”
Sales of his line of home décor has helped him get through the squeeze. “It’s been a life-saver,” Byler says.
Pictured: Deloran Thompson stands near the MacKenzie-Childs décor display at her store, Ivory & Birch in Boardman. The product line is known for checkerboard patterns.