Talking Shop: A Survivor's Guide to Retailing on Main Street

Main St. veterans Marilyn Heberling (l) and Leonora Burton

Mainstays of Main Street:Leonora Burton and Marilyn Heberling on how to make it through winter and beyond – Part One

By Alison Rooney

When Leonora Burton sits down at the table and starts spilling the contents of her purse out, talking about schools and cookbooks and birthdays, it isn’t immediately clear if she’s – on topic – the topic being how she and Marilyn Heberling have managed to keep their Main Street stores open for longer than just about anybody else in Cold Spring.

On closer listen, though, it all starts to make sense.  Seems there’¢s a charter school in Brooklyn which visits The Country Goose, Burton’s eclectic, homewares, toys, coffee and just about anything you can think of store, once a year to learn about “rural transportation.”  They also visit a number of other Main Street establishments and have been doing it for years.  Sometimes there’s a tie-in with another event, sometimes not.  This year by chance their visit coincided with Leonora’s birthday.  After interacting with the effervescent Leonora, inevitably the kids return to Brooklyn excited about their visit and Cold Spring in general.  Often they return with parents in tow.  Their parents may make a more traditional visit, lunching in a local eatery, making some impulse purchases in a Main Street shop, and yes, perhaps buying something from Leonora.  Maybe something like the Tot’s Park Cookbook, or one of the other “homegrown” items she offers for sale.  Spilling out of Leonora’s purse were the charming birthday cards she received from the children after their day trip, all attesting to the happiness of the day they visited her establishment.

A nice little story, yes.  But also a key to the retailing success which has kept Leonora and another mainstay of Main Street, Marilyn Heberling, of Art to Wear Too, in business for so long: “tentacles,” as Leonora puts it.  The kids’ visit triggers their parents’ visit, which triggers cookbook sales and restaurant meals, perhaps months, or even a year later. But visits. Or, as Marilyn puts it succinctly: “We just keep trying.”

The enticing range of goodies at Country Goose

In the beginning
Neither woman started out in retailing.  Marilyn has Masters degrees in social work and in theater (the combination seems perfect for customer interaction) and began by “opening the store” for Meg Staley and Jerry Gretzinger, the original and long-time owners of Art to Wear, which, in its former incarnation was the retail outlet of the Staley Gretzinger clothing line.  It now features clothing and accessories from a variety of designers and artisans. “Although I never knew retail, I knew clothes, knew people, how to talk to them, and how to work hard.”

Leonora says that when she bought her business (then a kitchenware store) 25 years ago from Betsy Hill, she did so “not knowing the first thing about retail.  I would close at 3 o’¢clock, pick up the kids and wonder why I wasn’t selling anything.  Then the kids started in after-school activities and I stayed open until 5 or 5:30 p.m. and business started picking up.  You have to be open.”

The first years in the business were full of learning experiences for both women. As Marilyn recalls, “the beginning was really working for a company that manufactured completely unique handmade clothing, made in the U.S.”  It got more expensive.  The company kept reinventing itself to meet economic ups and downs.  Eventually the manufacturing division closed, and I bought the retail store from my partners.  I’ve now brought in merchandise from others.  My formula has always been [to stock] things you don’t find in other places. You must find your own niche.  I applaud when other clothing establishments open in town – it makes people think about clothing. I have my own approach.”  For Leonora, the first big challenge was the opening of Wal-Mart in Fishkill around 1987.“I had to re-design the store.  Couldn’t compete with all of the cheap things made overseas.  It was then that I started my gift basket business.  I kept plugging along.  Now, it’s the reverse – people are coming in for kitchenware; they don’t want to buy crap.  It’s now a bigger portion of the store.  Also, people are cooking more because of the economy.”

Clothing, accessories and jewelry abound at Art to Wear Too

Attracting the out-of-town visitors
As a general rule of thumb, both women are always figuring the angles, trying to concoct innovative ways to get visitors to come and connect with Cold Spring.  For Leonora, that means working frequently with Metro-North.  For years, trainloads of “leaf peepers” have come up seasonally, and Leonora works with other local merchants to produce maps targeted to these visitors, canvassing the street for discounts to offer.  She also makes sure that the information counter at Grand Central is stocked with material on Cold Spring, for the many visitors who stop by there and ask “where can we go by train for the day?” Marilyn says that many visitors to Art to Wear Too mention that they wound up in Cold Spring through just such a recommendation. Again, persistence pays off, according to Leonora, “I’ll give them a frequent shopper card, or a free gift card incentive to come back.  Maybe it won’t be for four or five months, but it works.”

A general statement, says Marilyn, is that “if you do something that’s going to bring people to town, it may benefit you, it may not, but you should always look at the big picture, and not the small picture.  Sometimes people come and don’t buy.  You never know if they’ll come back again, but don’t just look at your day to day.”

Leonora updates a Guide to Cold Spring and Garrison Businesses map monthly to reflect the ever-changing directory of establishments.  It can be tailored to any specific business, as well, with a version available to any merchant, through Grey Printing, with space to put an individual website, logo or phone number.  When Leonora knows of a special group coming to Cold Spring, she sends them multiple maps.  Another publication, the Cold Spring Express is a special edition promo piece – an overview of what’s on.  Maintaining special relationships with the entities in Philipstown which attract groups, from Boscobel to Manitoga, is key as “they let me know when something is on,” says Leonora.

No one who knows Leonora and Marilyn will be surprised that a chat with them generated enough information for a two-part story.  Their gift of gab is, in fact, a large part of their success. The second part of the interview, which touches upon how to cultivate business with local residents, and also their opinions on why businesses fail, and succeed, on Main Street, will appear on shortly.

Photos by A. Rooney

3 thoughts on “Talking Shop: A Survivor's Guide to Retailing on Main Street

  1. I don’t know Marilyn but I have shopped at the Country Goose and it is certainly an idiosyncratic shopping experience. One not to be missed under any circumstances. As you say, Leonora has the gift of the gab and is a terrific exqmple of how to get things done. More power to both of them and I can’t wait to get back to
    Cold Spring.

  2. Both of these ladies have an understanding of the true meaning of “customer service” that the rest of retailing could learn from – they treat us with friendliness and respect – make suggestions and then just stand back. And they don’t take themselves Too seriously! – a pleasure always, and treasures to boast about –

  3. Kudos to these two very professional business owners, who make it fun to shop in their stores! Let’s all try to “Shop Small” and support local people as much as possible.