They are among the rocks, so to speak, of Madison’s vibrant local retail business.
Burnie’s Rock Shop has been selling gemstones and assorted geological treasures for more than 50 years, nearly 40 of them from its home at 901 E. Johnson St.
Over on the small specialty retail haven of Monroe Street, Katy’s American Indian Arts is about to embark on its 41st year in business as owner Katy Schalles continues to indulge her passion for Native American jewelry.
Each is a testament to the power of buying local long before that notion became something of a national trend.
And for the past decade that local consciousness has been formally nurtured by Dane Buy Local, the largest regional such organization in the country with more than 800 members.
“It’s just part of our culture, part of our DNA,” said Colin Murray, Dane Buy Local executive director. “When you think about it, it makes sense. We’re a progressive city where people understand the importance of supporting local businesses.”
Over her 40 years in business – which she thinks could make hers the longest operating woman-owned retailer in the area – Schalles has come to appreciate Madison’s buy local sensibilities.
“Like so many things in Madison, there’s an intensity about buying local, just like there’s an intensity about Badger basketball or football,” Schalles said. “We’re like this intense little community. If you don’t have that, I don’t know how you stay in business. If you can’t cultivate an awareness for buying local, you’re not going to stay in business very long and everything is going to become all homogenized. This community is very supportive.”
Schalles, who grew up in a family business environment working in her parents’ German bakery in Waunakee, fell in love with Indian jewelry while working as a teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for six years. She took a class in metalsmithing, toured turquoise mines and visited the Navajo and Pueblo villages where the jewelry was made.
“It kind of woke me up because a lot of these people were really artistically gifted,” she said, “but other than the gas station in the middle of nowhere, they had nowhere to sell their things.”
Schalles was determined to do something about that when she returned home with a couple of suitcases of Indian jewelry and started selling it at her parents’ antique store in Waunakee in 1974. Three years later, she opened Katy’s Turquoise Shop at Regent and Allen streets on the West Side. She settled at 1817 Monroe St. in 1983 and continues to sell the work of many of the same artists.
“I just went on passion and instinct,” she said. “I kind of work that way. I’m not the most astute business head. I didn’t take demographic studies or income studies when I moved back. This is my home, and I knew what I liked. I figured what I liked was going to be what they liked. And it kind of turned out that way.”
Adapting to change
Of course, all fashion ebbs and flows. And so it has been with Indian jewelry and décor over the years.
“When I opened up in the ’70s, that was the boom years for Indian jewelry and turquoise, and there were two or three other shops here,” Schalles said. “I don’t want to say I’ve outlived them, but I have.
“When Indian jewelry first came on the scene in the ’70s it was extremely popular. Everybody had it, everybody wore it, everybody in Hollywood wore it. That was a trend. Trends come and go and come and go around again.
“But like gold and diamonds and pearls, Indian jewelry through the years has become a standard and a tradition. For people who like it, it’ll never change. Some people just gravitate to it because they like the color of turquoise, others because they happened to have spent time in the Southwest and got bitten by the bug.”
Along with the whims of fashion, her business has had to hurdle other outside obstacles, including a growing shortage of American turquoise as many mines have dried up and closed and soaring silver prices, issues that were exacerbated by the recession of 2008 and the grinding recovery of the last couple of years.
“It was difficult,” said Schalles, who has one full-time and three part-time employees.“From 2008 through 2011, you kind of coast and if you’ve got savings, that’s where you get your inventory. I’m sure it was like that for many small businesses … and big businesses. Those were tricky, tricky years, plus you have the price of everything going up.
“It was a big whamo, and we’re all just coming out of that now. People are still a little timid to buy. I don’t want to dwell on those four or five years because they were so difficult. There’s a little resurgence but it’s slow.”
It is during those tough times that the local small business community draws closer, she said. For Schalles, that’s especially true with her Monroe Street neighbors. While State Street will always be the main part of Madison’s local retail identity, Schalles likes her location just up the street from Camp Randall.
“I think Monroe Street is really THE shopping district,” she said. “It’s more eclectic. There are a lot of individual Madisonians that have kept businesses going.
“We have a loosely galvanized group of Monroe Street merchants, and we like to talk and encourage each other. And if we’re miserable, misery needs company.”
Rock of retailers
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One of Madison’s iconic retailers, Burnie’s Rock Shop, owes its existence to a trip to Montana taken by Burnie Franke with some friends years ago in search of petrified wood and agates along a river.
Burnie became hooked on rocks and opened his first shop on Monroe Street in 1962 before moving to East Johnson Street in the late ’70s.
Along the way he passed on his fondness and fascination with rocks to his son, Nevin, who now owns the store along with his wife, Sonali. Burnie, 91, still stops by the store regularly to help out and work on special orders.
“From an early age, we were out looking along streams and lake shores for agates and special rocks,” Nevin Franke said.
That interest in rocks has led to a large and varied inventory of gems, minerals and fossils from around the world, some turned into jewelry and others as display pieces or curiosities.
“A lot of unique gifts for the curious … science nerds as well as people who are just interested in nature,” Nevin Franke said in describing his merchandise. “The geologic side of our story is huge. I always think that every rock has a story to tell.
“Fossils are the most obvious things in that realm but the other decorative specimens, either agates or geodes, they all have a fascinating story to tell in their formation. People who are curious about the Earth’s mysteries really enjoy having them around as part of their surroundings.”
Franke said that business generally has been steady, although it took a hit this summer with construction work along East Johnson.
“The nature of our business is that we don’t have too many necessities here,” Franke said. “So if it can wait people will defer that purchase until it’s more convenient. It was a slow summer.”
But that didn’t keep the business from expanding, as Burnie’s opened a second location at 636 S. Park St., former home of Chiripa, a Mexican-themed artisan craft store that closed early in the year.
The new building is stocked with larger decorative pieces that formerly were sold in a smaller annex to the original store.
“When we had an opportunity to get that property it seemed like it would mesh with that vision of fancy, statement pieces,” Franke said. “It’s more décor oriented.”
Franke said Madison’s buy local mentality has been a big factor in the shop’s long-term viability.
“I don’t have the statistical background to say how much of an impact it’s had, but it’s a feel-good portion of the shift in the market,” he said.
“People like to buy local. Sometimes I feel like it gets more lip service than actual follow through, but there is some momentum there,” Franke said.
“I think people feel good when they make a local purchase where they know the profits are going to flow through directly to the community and benefit the broader community as well as that individual.”
Keep on growing
That trend is reflected in Dane Buy Local membership, which is outnumbered only by statewide organizations in Michigan and Arizona.
“I thought we might max out at around 400 members, but it keeps on growing,” Murray said.
Neither the stores nor the organization takes growth for granted.
For the stores it means maintaining selective advertising and marketing campaigns.
“You have to put yourself out there with good marketing,” said Schalles, who will hold her annual holiday show and sale the second week of December. “Even if you’ve been in business for years you have to put your name out there.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re spending more money on advertising than you’re getting back, but I know from years when I didn’t advertise as much as I generally do, you really feel the difference.”
Dane Buy Local also participates in a variety of efforts. It participated in Small Business Saturday, an annual nationwide project to drive shoppers to local stores the day after Black Friday and also has a marketing campaign “Shift Your Shopping” to encourage shoppers to think local first.
“What I really say to people is to give the local guy a shot,” Murray said.