Love the Town You’re In!

Susan Gelman, left, with Lee Deutsch of Mister Guy for Women.

We live in an era of corporate mega-chains and Internet shopping. With little effort, we can buy mass-produced merchandise from all over the world. But for the small retailer, no amount of money will ever replace the satisfaction that comes from greeting a lifelong customer; and for consumers, no degree of convenience is better than the warm feeling of walking into a place where everybody knows your name—and exactly the kind of earrings that suit you. Here, local shoppers and shopkeepers sing the praises of neighborhood businesses.

Michelle Krauss, Clayton

“Protzel’s Deli on Wydown is the only New York-style deli in St. Louis,” says native New Yorker Michelle Krauss, who’s lived here since 1974. “The corned beef is so delicious that our friends in New York ask us to bring some whenever we visit! The people behind the counter know who you are, who your kids are, and how you like your meat sliced.”

Krauss is also a loyal fan of A Floral Gallery a few doors down. “When my boys were younger, they’d get all their boutonnieres for dances there,” says Krauss, head of interior design for Ford Foodservice Equipment Co. “Not long ago, the same shop did the flowers for my son’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Talk about coming full circle.”

Byrd Style Lounge, Clayton

Julie Stotlar bought Byrd Style Lounge on Maryland last August, just before the economy plummeted. “Good timing, right?” she says with a laugh. “But I figure if my customers and I can survive this and learn from it, it’ll be smooth sailing from now on.”

She credits her optimism to “my good, loyal customer base. We attract people from all over, but we have a core of neighborhood regulars who drop in frequently, wanting to know what’s new.” They’re buying a little less, she notes, “but they’re still willing to pay for something that’s special, amazing and one-of-a-kind.”

Down by the Station, Kirkwood

“Co-owner Peggy Heffner and I just got back from a gift show in Atlanta, where we snatched up a pair of earrings that would look perfect on one of our regular customers,” says Anne Brennan. “When you’ve been part of a neighborhood for a long time, you get to know the lay of the land.”

The Kirkwood shop has a diverse core of regulars, many of whom pop in at least once a week. “We get older people who’ve been coming in since the shop opened 28 years ago, and we get grade-schoolers from St. Peters School across the way,” Brennan says. She attributes their loyalty to the shop’s unique inventory, lighthearted atmosphere, and sheer longevity. “We’re like a member of the family,” she says.

Susan Gelman, University City

Gelman is a former business owner who understands the importance of shopping locally from both sides of the counter. “There’s nothing like the hand-picked merchandise and personalized service you get from a small, neighborhood-based business,” she says. “At Ghisallo Running on North & South, they take lots of time measuring my hard-to-fit foot. That usually doesn’t happen in a mall.”

She enjoys Winslow’s Home and City Sprouts on Delmar Boulevard, and can’t wait to take her grandkids to Zuma Bead Co., also on Delmar: “The owner gives beading lessons! Afterward, maybe we’ll go to Fitz’s, Blueberry Hill, or Jilly’s Cupcakes.”

Gelman, who lived in Ladue for 25 years, still supports her favorite shops there, too. “Jillybean has cute stuff you won’t find anywhere else, and I love Mister Guy in Ladue Marketplace. The warmth and style you’ll find in these places is fast disappearing from our culture, and it’s a shame.”

LoRusso’s Cucina, South City

“After 23 years in the same neighborhood, you build strong bonds with your regulars,” says owner Rich LoRusso. “Now the kids of our original customers are coming in with their dates or families, and my wife and I are here to greet them every night.”

LoRusso says it’s important for business owners to give back to the community that supports them. “St. Joan of Arc Church auctioned me off not long ago, I’ll be cooking dinner for eight with their monsignor,” he says. After he helped raise money for a scholarship fund honoring a young man who’d died in a car crash, “the entire family came in to thank me,” he recalls. “You can’t build that kind of relationship in a franchise operation where the management and staff change constantly.”

The Market at Busch’s Grove, Ladue

Paul Poe smiles when customers reminisce about their prom dates and engagement dinners at the former Busch’s Grove restaurant. “It’s nice to be part of so many good memories,” he says. “Now we’re building a loyal customer base of our own, many of our customers shop here every day. We know their names; our meat guy knows just how they like their chicken breasts. You don’t get that strong sense of community in a big-box grocery.”

Busch’s has also established firm relationships with local suppliers. “We support area farmers, bakers, coffee vendors, the gamut,” Poe says. “Mutual support strengthens the community. And we structure our costs so prices don’t have to be more expensive.”

Scharr’s Hardware Co., Ladue

Frank Blair started working at Schnarr’s in 1974. “Merchandise and marketing techniques have changed, but people don’t change,” he says. “They still appreciate friendliness and good service, and we’ve been supplying both since the turn of the last century.”

Blair bought the business in 1995. “Mr. Schnarr was like my second father and mentor,” he says. “He always told me to take care of the customers and listen to them.” It’s a formula that’s been successful despite relentless competition from big-box franchises. “They might charge a little less, but they can’t give the kind of service we do,” Blair says. “We don’t see our customers as transactions, but as friends.”