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New York Times, February 22, 2004


Commercial Property/New Jersey; Stores That Look Like Homes, For Very Good Reason

By ANTOINETTE MARTIN

“YOU are about to be greeted by Daisy,” says the note over the door handle. “She is noisy but harmless.”

And sure enough, crossing the threshold of the sweet Victorian at 350 Center Avenue in Westwood brings a barking innocuous dog to the door. In every other way, though, this house is not what it looks like: it is a shop, not a home, for one thing. Yet it is homey -- particularly if you're a girl, or her mother.

Daisy & Lilly is designed to be both shop and habitat for girls ages 7 to 15, according to its proprietors, Digna Rodriguez-Poulton and Simon Poulton -- a place where girls not only buy clothes and earrings and lip gloss, but can just hang out with mothers or friends in tow and feel surrounded by “an aura of hipness and friendliness at the same time,” said Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton.

“For our store,” she added, “we really wanted to find a space that was something other than 'the box.'” Like other small-scale “destination retailers” -- shops that seek customers willing to make a trip to visit them -- the couple who run Daisy & Lilly deliberately chose an old house on a suburban side street for their store's home. They avoided the hassle of getting their idea past town planners by finding a house that was already situated in a mixed-use zone.

Three years ago, the couple sold their home in Ridgewood, downsized to a condo and put the proceeds toward leasing and helping to pay to rehabilitate the house on Center Avenue, which had been broken up into apartments. Working with the building's owner, Bruce Meisel, who owns considerable retail property in downtown Westwood, they turned the three-story structure into two stories, widened the side-entry staircase and installed a prominent first-floor bay window, which became Daisy's daytime perch.

The Rodriguez-Poultons, retailers who say they have an instinctive love of storytelling, wrote a tale called “The Legend of Daisy & Lilly” about the creation of the store, their Jack Russell terrier who serves as its mascot (and her fictive daughter, Lilly) and the tight friendship of a group of girls who learn about fashion and have adventures at the shop. The “legend” is displayed on a floor-to-ceiling mural mounted just inside the door.


Stores in houses have much stronger “personalities,” asserts Patti Cain, who bought a 200-year-old farmhouse at 106 Pompton Avenue in Cedar Grove to establish Gypsy Farmhouse Antiques, where she sells Amish furniture; ethnic gewgaws like mirrored scarfs from Mexico; vintage textiles; and architectural salvage pieces like cornices, lintels and fireplace mantels.

“I was searching for a house,” Ms. Cain said, “because that allows you to sell anything fun and different.” She bought the vacant 40-by-40-foot house set on the side of a hill in 1999 and spent the better part of a year getting it into shape. The prodigious stock at the store now seems to nearly burst it at the seams -- a large Virgin Mary statue on the fireplace mantel beneath a row of crocheted potholders, shutters in the tub, Amish carved and painted doors stacked up in the kitchen -- and Ms. Cain is planning an addition.

She would never consider decamping, Ms. Cain said. “This house is perfect for my store,” she said. “I get a lot of young couples out of New York City, people who don't want the typical cookie-cutter feeling in their apartments. Because we're located in a house, they can hold a pair of shutters up to the windows to see how they look. Or they can check out how some Amish linens and embroidered pillows look on the bed in the upstairs bedroom.”

“People linger,” she said. “They get ideas, and then spend some time figuring out how to make them work, and it's a fun experience for all of us.” In the summer, she hosts antique shows in the backyard and sells homemade lemonade and shoo-fly pies, the traditional calorie-laden Amish dessert.



In rural Mendham, on the other side of Morristown from a vast wooded park and rolling hills, JoEllen Rubolotta says operating her jewelry store from part of a wing of a 135-year-old rehabbed rambling house helps engender “a following.”

“This is what I always wanted,” Ms. Rubolotta said, twirling around in her 913-square-foot shop at 2 Hilltop Road, which occupies the first floor, with the former root cellar beneath and a studio apartment above. “I wanted a store that is charming and unique.”

Such a berth does present a few limitations. JoEllen Jewelers is not permitted to have a jeweler work on the premises, because that would present fire danger to a historic structure, Ms. Rubolotta said. The floor is so sloped in the room she uses as her office that she sometimes feels a bit off kilter just walking to the door.

But the windowed front room -- the panes are original -- is an ideal place to display jewelry, she said. In the interior room, Ms. Rubolotta has set chairs around the fireplace, which was painted a gaudy orange when she first saw it and is now a subdued brown. Her frog collection, including dozens of bejeweled frog pins, is displayed inside a curio table and in various niches around the hearth.

Customers have to be buzzed in past the security door, Ms. Rubolotta noted, so it is especially important to welcome them with a cozy atmosphere, she said.

Ms. Rubolotta said she watched workers from a local company, Grant Homes, every step of the way as they skinned the building, refashioned interior details to her specification and burrowed into the stone cellar to install a high-security alarm system.

At Daisy & Lilly, the basement is the business office, stockroom, cafeteria (a microwave) and design center where Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton is creating “Cute Couture,” a new line of clothing to be marketed nationally next year. At the Gypsy Farmhouse, it is just another showroom -- but the backyard is a big attraction for customers. It is where garden furniture and accessories are displayed year-round, and it serves as a place to sit and mull over merchandise.

The owners of shop-houses seem to take particular pride in interior decorating. Ms. Cain painted each room in her house a different color and hung pieces from her antique textile collection in the windows along with showy Japanese obis and old prom dresses.

At Daisy & Lilly, Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton seems to have set the paradigm for the perfect girl's bedroom. Her husband says he is asked nearly once a week for the name and number of the blue shade of Benjamin Moore paint on the walls (Aquarius blue, No. 788). The seasonal decorations, glass baubles and beads hanging on ribbons from the ceiling also sell like, well, shoo-fly pies on a summer afternoon, Mr. Poulton said.

“We are trying to create a lifestyle brand,” his wife said. “We have fashioned the store as a place where a girl's creativity is inspired and nurtured.” The shop sells books with such titles as “The Greatness of Girls” and “Girl Power” in addition to cool clothes, and Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton runs meetings with a devoted group of customers known as the GaGa girls (Girls Academy of Good Advice) who do craft projects and talk about fashion and life.

Teenagers only slightly older than the customers are among the shop's employees. The idea is to offer a bit of mentoring in addition to clothes that are “stylish without overexposure,” as Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton puts it.

“I think there is no better way of unleashing the girls than surrounding them with a safe, stimulating environment,” she said. “Everyone is well-behaved. No one spills their Coke. They don't go barreling through the shop opening every lip gloss -- which is good, because we have a lot of lip gloss.”

Last year, the Rodriguez-Poultons tried to create a similar store for women in an old house across the street, but that fizzled within six months. “I thought we would get all the mothers of all the daughters,” Mr. Poulton said. “I don't quite know why that didn't happen. What I do know is that the formula here does work.”

Daisy & Lilly opened in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack in New York, he said, and the couple knew that all their effort and dreams might go down in the economic spiral that followed. “But they came,” he said. “We had moms waiting outside the door in the morning, and we had girls appearing at the shop as soon as school let out.” Within months, the store's mailing list swelled to 2,500.

This winter, the weather has been generally unkind to retailers dependent on side-street shoppers, he noted, and Daisy & Lilly has suffered with the rest. “Come spring, though,” Mr. Poulton said, “we expect all our customers will be coming back home.”