Right up Your Alley relocates to neighboring business

Shop owners find creative ways to survive economy

The majority of new businesses fail, even in a good economy, statistics show. For downtown shop owners, finding an alternative way to keep the doors open proves statistics can be outsmarted. Jan Wallace enjoyed her Right Up Your Alley corner location at Bridge and Squires streets, but had a tough time making expenses meet. When she confided in fellow business owner Polly VonEschen at Baskets in the Belfry that she might have to close her doors, VonEschen offered a surprising alternative: buddy up. On May 1, Wallace opened her “door” to her new store located in a back room at Baskets in the Belfry.

Polly VonEschen, owner of Baskets in the Belfry, has opened her doors wide to fellow merchants Jeanne Hawkins of The Secret Ingredient and Jan Wallace of Right Up Your Alley. Visit all three at 46 Bridge Street, downtown Rockford.

“I’m very encouraged,” Wallace said of the reception she’s received by her faithful clients and new ones as well. She had to pare down her floor space from 1,500 feet to a tight 250, but the experience wasn’t as hard as she had thought it would be.

“You have to prioritize,” Wallace said. “I had to step back and say, ‘What are the best things that I have to sell?’”

With just a short distance from her old front door to her new, Wallace and staff carried plenty of her inventory across the street and down the sidewalk to set up. Larger items they moved by vehicle.

Wallace isn’t the first local merchant to find a haven at Baskets. Jeanne Hawkins is owner of The Secret Ingredient, a company she’s owned for about three years. Doing business mostly online, Hawkins set up a storefront presence in Baskets in October 2009, where customers could meet her and look at her products before purchase. She offers Victorian products such as herbal teas and sachets, faerie-themed items, and non-toxic cleaning supplies, and holds teas. She recently organized a tea party for Lena Meijer at Frederik Meijer Gardens.

“It wasn’t planned,” said VonEschen of the unusual arrangement. “We’ve been friends for years.”

VonEschen said she and Wallace used to talk about business and encourage each other. When Wallace told her she was closing, the offer just popped out.

“It wasn’t me. I didn’t even know I was going to say it,” VonEschen described. “It came out of the blue.”

Too many chefs may spoil the soup, but too many merchants are apparently good for business. According to VonEschen, all three benefit by the others. Local Baskets shoppers also like Wallace’s inventory, and followers of Hawkins can now see her in person rather than shopping online if they prefer.

LIKE FAMILY—Polly VonEschen and staff are like family. Here, the son of former employee Lindsey Kohler, looks around the store for the first time. Dylan Kohler, 1-1/2, was in town with his mom as she stopped in at Baskets in the Belfry to say hello.

“This is an adventure, not a challenge or a competition,” VonEschen said. “We found a creative way to stay in business by combining space. There is enough competition without competing with each other.”

VonEschen also said the three—and their combined staff—get along well. “Personality-wise, we all mesh.”

Baskets in the Belfry is one of the older shops in downtown Rockford, established 32-1/2 years ago in the attic (belfry) of the former antique mall, which stood where the Welcome Center is now in front of Great Northern Trading Company. In 1987, the business moved to its current location. VonEschen bought the business five years ago. The shop boasts 3,000 square feet—enough room to share.

“It’s an adventure,” said VonEschen. “I invite people to come explore our adventure.”

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