The retail operation at the History Museum of South Bend was a modest one until a traveling “Downton Abbey” costume exhibit came to town in late 2016.
“It was just a few shelves of $5 and $10 items,” said Ken Cencelewski, Director of Visitor Services & Facility Rentals. “I mean, every museum has to have something, right?”
The idea was to add some vintage props and other items to coordinate with the Downton exhibit. The demand was so great, however, it prompted the staff to expand the retail area to a full Museum Boutique, which is now chocked full of vintage one-of-a-kind offerings, books, lamps, T-shirts, costumes and plenty of other items.
It’s been a case of learning on the go for Cencelewski and a small staff of college-aged assistants. The crew — Joe Giczi and Lillie Magers-Pershing — work closely with Cencelewski, with each offering input in buying and display decisions.
“That’s been the great thing about working with Kenny. If we go to him with an idea that we think will work, he’s pretty much like, ‘Let’s try it,” Magers-Pershing said. “I had this idea where I thought we should try to sell this vintage-inspired make-up in the gift shop. He wasn’t completely on board, but gave me a chance on it.”
The team buys from wholesalers, flea markets and antique stores. Northern Indiana, most notably Shipshewana, is a hotbed for the latter two, which helped create a very unique inventory at the Museum Boutique.
“A lot of items are one-of-a-kind things that we’ll never have again,” Magers-Pershing said.
While the Downton exhibit left town in 2017, the Museum Boutique’s offerings have only grown in number and variety. Midway through 2018, sales had already passed the previous year. Cencelewski credited the museum board of directors and administrators for allowing his department to expand the operation.
The Museum Boutique has plenty of books on local and Indiana history and often buys work from area artists to sell. There also is a unique collection of All-American Girls Professional Baseball League memorabilia, as the History Museum of serves as the AAGPBL’s national repository.
MM: How do current exhibits influence your inventory?
KC:We always do something to partner with the exhibits being shown. Surprisingly enough, we found a great wholesaler out of California with Tiffany lamps. … Before it was just $5 and $10 stuff, so we really took a gamble to have $200 lamps. We bought three, I think; and the first week, we sold one. It’s gone very well. It’s been very successful for us. (The museum has sold more than twice as many as the staff originally anticipated.)
MM: How do you know if something is right for the store?
LMP: We kind of just get a feeling. If it’s unique and you don’t see it anywhere else, we’ll pick it up. We will kind of visualize it in the gift shop. That’s really the only way to describe it.
MM: As far as the retail learning curve, what have been your biggest challenges?
LMP: It’s learning what sells, when it sells, what type of people are buying things and to be patient. Just because something doesn’t sell this season doesn’t mean it won’t sell next season.
MM: How did the store layout and merchandising come together?
KC: We had the basic furniture. We had old display models, there are old cabinets they kept in the basement — museums never throw anything away. So it’s been repurposing and moving it. Like on a slow day, we’ll decide to move something and we’re dying with it because it never just takes a couple of hours. But then we’ll finally get it, and it works.
MM: What are your top-selling categories?
KC: Décor and vintage. Our vintage has really taken off. These collectors, if they’re looking for something specific, they almost have to take a day and go search for it. They’re willing to pay a little bit more because then they don’t have to do that.
LMP: We never really know what’s going to go, but most of it does go.
MM: Are you drawing many repeat shoppers?
LMP: Yes, we do get people who come in just for the boutique who say, “Well, I know you always have really unique things.” They usually wind up buying something, which is fantastic for us that they actually come just for (the store).
KC: We do get customers who offer suggestions for when we reorder to try and get this style or that style. … For the first (full) year, the prospects are looking good.