“I still feel like the new kid,” says Ellen Kluge as she celebrates her store’s 25th year in business. “But apparently I’m not.” Even though Kluge has been with the store, Rhubarb Kitchen Shop, since she first welcomed customers as its manager in 1992, the excitement she feels running the store and greeting customers has never waned.
“I’ve been happy,” she says.
She’s been the store’s owner for two decades now and it is a jewel box of a shop, sitting in the middle of a scenic lakeside town with fixtures still intact from its days as a millinery 100 years ago. Add a brisk summer and holiday tourist business along with a year-round customer base of well-off townsfolk, and it is no wonder Ellen Kluge is a happy retailer.
Indeed, her story is one of happy coincidence. Feeling that she “needed to make a change,” Kluge, who worked at Dey Brothers department store in Syracuse before it closed in 1992, (she also holds a marketing degree from Syracuse University) had recently gotten married when she and her husband decided to pick up and move to Skaneateles, a historic village in upstate New York.
“We were looking for a farmhouse to renovate,” she says, “and I saw an ad in the newspaper for a manager of a kitchenware store. I loved to cook and thought, ‘Wow, that would be too perfect.’”
Rhubarb Kitchen Shop’s then owners, Michael and Barbara George, were trying to manage the store from their home in Plain City, Ohio, and needed a local to step in. Kluge fit the bill, and after five years of managing the business she bought the store from the couple.
Skaneateles is a historic community on the north shore of Skaneateles Lake, the eastern gateway to the Finger Lakes, a major tourism area for the state of New York. The village boasts a spa, winery, historic inns and four-star resorts, and its Chamber of Commerce promotes the town as a four-season travel destination.
That means Kluge’s customers are often visitors to the town, traveling in for the lake as well as the town’s famous tradition of throwing a “Dicken’s Christmas” celebration. That holiday fest kicks off at Thanksgiving and comes complete with actors who don Victorian garb and carol around the downtown.
The Christmas fete is one way retailers both promote their stores and give back to the larger Skaneateles community, Kluge says. Retailers host the annual event, hiring real stage actors to impersonate characters from the Dickens novella, including Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Ebenezer Scrooge makes the scene as his reformed (thankfully) miser self, and in the spirit of his new-found generosity, hands out gift certificates from the participating stores.
“Dickens’ Christmas costs many thousands of dollars,” Kluge says, “There are horse and carriage rides, caroling and Christmas skits. It will run for five weekends this year, and we retailers pay for it all.” They get their money’s worth in terms of promotion, though.
“It is the coolest event,” says Kluge who also serves on the town’s Chamber of Commerce, “and this village is the perfect backdrop.” The event helps bring in tourists for the fourth quarter (many of whom also like to summer there), providing retailers like Kluge with two strong selling seasons.
And she also benefits from the town’s location within an hour or less of major cities like Rochester, as well as Syracuse, where many townspeople work.
“Visitors and locals support us,” she says. “People love to get out of the craziness of the world and come to this town,” she says. And her store, set almost back in time, helps further that feeling of “getting away from it all,” with its vintage appeal.
“It is such a sweet, quaint little building. I feel honored to be its caretaker,” she says of the former hat-making shop. “People have such peace when they come here.” With original shelving and wooden floors still intact, the store “lends itself so well for merchandising.”
Still the small size is a challenge. “We get creative with our displays and make every bit of space count,” Kluge says of her team, which include six part-time staffers, most of whom are retired school teachers, along with a high-school student or two during the summers.
Kluge doesn’t belong to a buying group and edits her assortment of products carefully, mostly through visits to the International Home + Housewares Show each March and by working with trusted manufacturer’s reps. Customers, too, chip in with suggestions, and Kluge makes a point to stock their requests.
In the end though, she knows her customers very well; both those who live in town and those who come back for their annual vacations by the lake. That’s how she knows she’s been there for 25 years, even though she still “feels like the new kid.”
“We have customers now who first came in with their parents when they were little kids. We used to set them up with paper and crayons on the floor while their parents shopped,” Kluge remembers. “One just registered here for her wedding last week. It’s fun to see the progression.”
And then there are the high school girls who worked summers, who come back all grown up. Or the visitors who arrived in Skaneateles as children and stop by to reminisce about coming to the store with their mothers, who are now long dead.
“You get to hear that you are making memories for customers and you are part of someone’s history,” Kluge says. “I feel very honored to be part of that.”