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Baskets by Bonnie
The end of her Short North Run

February 2005
By Karen Edwards


Bonnie Segel

Naturally, Bonnie Segel had regrets about leaving the Short North. Her business, Baskets by Bonnie, had held state at the corner of Buttles and High (at 721 N. High Street) for nine years – and before that, she had occupied the space that’s now home to Piece of Cake.

Eleven years building friendships and a sense of community is a hard thing to leave behind, so it was with bittersweet feelings that she shut her shop’s doors for the final time in January. Yet there was a feeling of inevitability about it. Sometimes businesses simply outgrow their space – especially successful businesses.

Segel jumped into the gift basket business in 1992, not so much from a burning passion to create baskets as a burning desire to create something.
“I had to get out of the corporate world and into something creative,” she says. She had crafted silk arrangements and gift bags for friends, always to warm applause, so she decided she’d create gift baskets for a living.

She started the business out of her townhouse – “I basically figured it out as I went,” she says – but she admits to being a retailer at heart. “I want the interaction with customers.” So, she was soon scoping out Short North properties, following friends who were looking in the area for retail space for their own project. Although her friends’ project ultimately failed, Segel moved into the 772 N. High Street location, and began selling baskets.

“Getting established is the tough part,” Segel says. “It probably takes two or three years to really get a business off the ground.”

But Segel started immediately to create a niche for herself. “I didn’t focus on the competition,” she says. Instead, she set up shop downtown – most of her competitors were in the suburbs. She provided more services than her competitors, customizing gift baskets, for example, rather than creating standard baskets.

“We offered gift items that others weren’t offering,” says Segel.

Leap of faith
By the time the Buttles and High location became available, Baskets by Bonnie was becoming well established as a business, but Segel says moving into the new building still took a leap of faith. The rent was two and a half times what she had been paying. Could the growing business keep up?

“It had to,” says Segel simply.

Sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to assume a net will appear – and it did.

Higher visibility brought more traffic, more traffic brought more orders, and Segel found herself able to pay the rent and make some profit besides.
But, of course, her busy business can’t be entirely attributed to faith. Segel is a savvy gift shopper who has assembled an inven-tory that leaves walk-in customers gasping with delight.

“They’re amazed at the depth and breadth of the things we offer,” says Segel. The variety is in response to her customers, she explains, “as well as my adult ADD. I would get bored doing the same baskets over and over. I need to keep the business unique and creative.”

Visit and you’ll experience some of that legendary variety for yourself – but even those items are changeable. Gift possibilities come and go, depending on trends, customer demand, and, to a certain extent, Segel’s whims.

Her sweet tooth is evident throughout the retail space and online offerings. There is plenty of chocolate (of course), but also lemon straws (her personal favorite), and other types of “where-did-you-find-this?” kind of candy.

“Many of the office gift baskets we make include sweet and salty snacks,” she says – so it makes sense to stock them.

But Baskets by Bonnie offers so much more – books and games and wine and action figures. You never know what you’re likely to find, either as a basket recipient or a walk-in customer.

Segel says she’s always looking for inventory, and she prowls gift shows and fairs for the perfect items. In fact, she’s often prodded for information on where she finds her gift items. That’s proprietary information, however. She won’t disclose her sources to anyone – but it has prompted her to think in a new direction. More on that later.

The Bucks win
As for the most popular gift baskets, Segel doesn’t hesitate: “Anything to do with the Buckeyes or Ohio State” – but food baskets run a close second, especially with offices and businesses where sharing food is part of the culture.

The nice thing about Segel’s customizing policy is specific food items can be selected according to the recipient’s taste – or even omitted and replaced with more appropriate items, if that’s a better fit.

“The problem with a standard get-well basket,” says Segel, “is that it usually includes food items” – along with that ever-present teddy bear. Segel, however, has learned that some recipients just aren’t at a point in their recovery where they are able to eat. So, Baskets by Bonnie offers get-well baskets stuffed with crossword puzzles and books and toys instead of food – as well as get-well baskets filled with the usual tasty treats.

“Our job is to make people’s lives a little easier,” says Segel. Sometimes, that involves role-playing, placing herself in the role of the basket recipient. However she does it, though, she is succeeding admirably.

And word about her customized baskets is spreading. Short North Gallery Hops continue to expose new clients to her business. “I’m still amazed that someone at each Gallery Hop tells me this is their first hop,” says Segel. But word is also spreading online as well.

Though she’s reluctant to name-drop, Segel has created baskets for John Waters, (Remember the devil duck merchandise? Plenty of it went into his fire-and-brimstone basket), Cindi Lauper and divo Luciano Pavarotti. “If you’re in this business long enough, eventually you’ll have a celebrity customer,” Segel states philosophically.

Back-door business grows
Her phone and Internet basket orders – her “back door business” as she calls them – are now exceeding her retail sales and drop-in visits. During the last quarter of this year, in fact, sales were so strong that retail customers sometimes proved a distraction from the business’s core orders.

Perhaps fortuitously, Segel was approached in October by her landlord who said someone wanted her building space. The potential tenant was willing to pay more and to sign a long-term lease for the space.

Segel didn’t react immediately. She simply took a breath and examined her options.

First, she looked around the Short North neighborhood. Was there someplace else she could move? Sadly, no…for several reasons. Segel wanted to own her own building, but real estate prices are so greatly inflated these days that few options were available. She knew she needed an area with plenty of space to assemble the baskets, and a location where loading and unloading wouldn’t become a problem.

After all, her business has grown to such an extent that even the Buttles and High location was becoming inadequate. This Christmas, a large project forced Segel and her staff to scramble to find storage space. They finally crammed 70 boxes in their Buttles Avenue side window, then dressed their mannequin in UPS attire to make it look like a deliberate window-dressing decision.

Besides, Segel is ready to spin off two new businesses. Huge interest in her action toy collection will lead to the new Oh Boy Toy Company she hopes to launch online soon – and those questions as to where she finds her basket items has led her down yet another path – as distributor for those very same trinkets.

“In a way, it was a blessing” Segel says about the landlord and the request for her space. Without that impetus, she says, she likely would have procrastinated on what was, inevitably, the best decision she could make for her business – to move out of the neighborhood.

Baskets by Bonnie has moved to Citygate Business Park, near Port Columbus. There, she has her own parking lot, a big door for loading and unloading, and lots of space. She has a small retail showroom that will open during limited hours. It’s a big change from her Short North environment, but one that’s perfect for her business now.

Segel sent e-mails to Short North friends and colleagues about her move. She wanted them to know her leave-taking was actually good news.

But she’s sad to leave. “I’ll miss the community, the energy here,” she says. “I’ll especially miss all the friends I’ve made.”

Neighborhood transition
Like any long-time resident, Segel has observed the Short North’s transitions. She watched and delighted in the development of a Short North Improvement District and the I-670 Cap project. “It’s exciting watching something like that, a long-term project like that, come to fruition,” she says.

Every neighborhood has its life cycle, and the Short North may be at or nearing its peak.

It’s an exciting place to be, now – a new, desirable place to live, work and play.

The trouble is, as an area becomes more desirable, rents go up, and as they do, individuality, at least in some cases, begins to disappear. Without vision and some accommodation to small start-ups and artistic enterprises, the area can become homogenized, sanitized with the addition of large chain stores and restaurants and even branches of corporate activity.

That’s not to say that type of action is happening now in the Short North – or that it ever will. Shops and businesses come and go in neighborhoods all the time. After all, some businesses, like Baskets by Bonnie, simply outgrow the old neighborhood. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s only a loss when such businesses are replaced by something less unique, more ubiquitously familiar.

“I hope the Short North remembers me as a good neighbor,” says Segel. “I hope they remember me and my business as a lot of fun.”
No doubt it will. And it can only hope (and hold its breath) that the tradition of a unique, fun, good-neighbor business continues.

Baskets by Bonnie, 2171 Citygate Drive, Columbus, OH 43219 (1 mile north of Port Columbus Airport) (614) 418-7100

©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.