Columbus, Ohio USA
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For the Love of Loot
This Short North mainstay offers home-furnishing buyers a 'mall alternative'
by Karen Edwards
August 2008 Issue
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Twenty years of trust and togetherness - mother Phyllis Potts (center) with daughters Leslie Welsh (left) and Jennifer Dennis, three longtime owners of Loot, 641 N. High Street.
Walk into Loot, the rambling home-furnishings store at W. Russell and N. High Streets – which happens to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this month – and you don’t know where to look first. Treasures fill every inch of space, reflecting the fashion, flair and taste of not just one owner but three: Phyllis Potts and her two daughters, Jennifer Dennis and Leslie Welsh.
According to Dennis, Loot’s creation was inevitable. “We’re an entrepreneurial family. My mother owned a bookstore, The First Page in Westerville, for years. My father owns a commercial real estate business, and my brother is an attorney,” she says. Her husband, David, is also the entrepreneurial sort – he owns his own Columbus advertising agency.
So owning her own business, or at least a share of it, was something Dennis knew she wanted to do from an early age. But it took a few years after graduating in anthropology from the College of Charleston in South Carolina to get the ball rolling.
“We talked about opening a store all the time,” says Dennis, referring to frequent phone conversations with her mother and sister on the subject. Before Loot, Dennis was dressing windows at a small Charleston department store, and Welsh, who had graduated from Ohio University, was an artist-journalist working at a neighborhood newspaper in Atlanta.
“Jenny was the one who really wanted the shop,” says her mother Phyllis Potts. “She thought about taking advanced studies in anthropology, but she wanted to give this a try so I called (realtor) Sandy Wood and we started to look for space.”
Both sisters said there was never any question that a store, when it finally came about, would be located in Columbus. It’s home, Dennis explains. It’s where family is.
Once she was on the hunt for retail space, Potts gravitated to the Short North – and this was 20 years ago before the neighborhood was hip and trendy. She says she just liked the community, its emerging art galleries, its entrepreneurial and creative spirit, its promise and potential.
“She sent us brochures about the area while we were still living out of town,” Dennis says. The decision to move forward came quickly from both girls. Potts rented space – “a very tiny but very nice space” – at 720 N. High St. (now Luxe de Vie) and Loot was born.
“We named it Loot because it would fit whatever it was we chose to sell,” says Dennis – although home furnishings would always be the shop’s focus. “We like decorating,” Dennis explains. “When we were young, we used to decorate our rooms and we were given complete creative freedom to do that.” She laughs when she recalls the “hideous beads” that once formed a curtain over a door to her room, but she was learning style through experimentation then – and exercising the creativity that would stand her in good stead as a window-dresser and later at Loot.
As the sisters grew, shopping with their mother became a favorite activity – three best friends, attending antique shows, trade shows, tag sales, garage sales and flea markets. They were developing their eyes, refining their tastes, and creating in their minds the signature Loot look.
The quintessential Loot
When Loot first opened its doors in 1988, drunks were still sleeping in Short North door frames, but the family shop was already forming a kind of shabby chic identity, reflecting that eclectic mix of fun and practical, gorgeous and funky that is quintessentially Loot.
Initially, Loot’s merchandise tended to turn on English antique furniture and gardening items. They’re still part of the mix – when good items can be found, says Dennis – but they’re not as prevalent as they once were.
“To make money with antiques, you have to be serious and that wasn’t the kind of place we wanted to be. So we added more commercial items and became mostly that,” says Dennis. “We still sell some antiques, but they’re more vintage pieces, really, for fun.”
Loot moved to its current location at 641 N. High St. four years after first opening its doors. The new space was roomier to begin with, but Loot expanded as other tenants left, tripling its floor space. Now, Loot clients can amble through what amounts to three show-rooms: a cozy front room filled with the newest merchandise, a middle section featuring clothes and purses, and a huge back room, divided into various areas for books, babies, bedding and more.
In addition to its Short North location, Welsh said she opened a second Loot in Yellow Springs where she moved with her husband, Robert, a bank employee, after returning to Ohio. “He’s from Wilmington and I’m from Columbus. Yellow Springs is between the two,” Welsh says, explaining her out-of-town location. The Yellow Springs Loot, which opened about the same time as the Columbus store, lasted about a year. “It was just too difficult trying to shop for both stores and raise a family at the same time,” she explains.
Granddaughter Hadley Potts, modeling. Photo/Erin Silvert-Noftle
Still, a few years later, the three tried another Loot location, this time a kiosk at the Lane Avenue Shopping Center in Upper Arlington where Dennis and Welsh grew up. (Their parents still live in Upper Arlington). That was about 10 years ago. It didn’t last much longer than the Yellow Springs Loot.
“The mall location just didn’t work for us,” says Dennis. “There were too many rules.” Besides, Potts, Welsh and Dennis have always preferred to stay away from malls when they shop. “We like to search out funky little neighborhoods when we travel because that’s where you’ll find the truly authentic stores,” says Dennis.
One of the charms of the Short North’s own ‘truly authentic store’ is the care that goes into selecting its merchandise. “I think one of the things that make our store interesting is that each of us buys items on our own, and we each have our own style,” says Welsh. Each owner has her own strength, as it turns out. Dennis’s specialty is the soft goods – fabric, clothing and bed furnishings. Welsh buys mostly jewelry, vintage items and the store’s trendy merchandise. Potts, of course, chooses the handsome home decorating books scattered throughout the store and piled randomly on a huge table in the back show room.
“We trust each other’s choices,” says Dennis, though, at some point, “everyone has made a mistake” – items that would not move for days, weeks, even months. “We’ll kid each other about it,” says Dennis.
Of course, there are times when Potts still harbors some doubts about her daughters’ purchases. She recalls opening a shipment of merchandise a couple of years ago that had been purchased by Loot’s “trend” buyer, Welsh. “She had bought all this jewelry made from insects,” Potts says. “They were real insects encased in some sort of plastic.”
Potts says she and manager Cindi Kirk, who has been with Loot for 10 years, were skeptical as to whether or not the jewelry would sell. “I didn’t even want to put it out,” says Potts. It turns out the jewelry was a huge hit. “I was surprised,” says Potts.
But this is not a family that would dream of fighting about something as minor as merchandise choices, nor will you find them holding grudges, or nurturing resentments. “We’re too close for that,” says Dennis.
Besides, adds Potts, “I think we’re lucky there are three of us. It may be why we’ve stayed in business for so long. We cover for each other and we’re there for each other.”
The family, incidentally, has grown quite a bit since Loot opened its doors.
Welsh and Dennis have four children each – three boys and a girl for Dennis, ranging in age from 4 to 17 years; and three girls and a boy for Welsh, ranging from 9 to 19 years. (Welsh is three years older than her sister.)
All of the children were born while their mothers were busy working and buying for Loot. In fact, you can credit the sisters’ growing families for Loot’s line of baby furniture, bed furnishings and other items for infants. “We were shopping for our own children anyway,” says Dennis.
And as all three point out, Loot isn’t the kind of business you simply close the door on at night. “We’re always on the job,” says Dennis.
That’s especially true on trips. The families travel often, and frequently together, shopping as they go. They visit Chicago, New York, and Atlanta trade shows regularly, but they also spent time in the past shopping the flea markets of Edinburgh, Scotland and London’s Portobello Road. Welsh has also spent time picking up items from the flea markets of France.
Once they’re back home, the sisters divide their time at the store. Welsh typically works at Loot on weekends; Dennis during the week. Potts doesn’t spend much time at the store these days – “She pops in occasionally,” says Welsh, –º but adds their mother does do all the bookkeeping and taxes for the business and is available to fill in as needed.
Will Loot continue through the next generation?
Dennis says her boys are unlikely to pick up the reins. “They’ll help us move things if they’re pressed,” she says, then adds with a laugh they can unfailingly pick out which items in the store have been selected by which owner without knowing that information beforehand.
If there’s hope for another generation of Loot owners, however, it may just lie in Welsh’s 18-year old daughter Madalyn who is already showing an active interest in the store.
“She helps at the store on weekends and during gallery hops, and she’s come with us on our last two buying trips, says Welsh.
Although Madalyn Welsh is now a college sophomore, she still works at Loot during the summer and will attend the New York show this month with her mother and aunt, “To help us spot new trends and add a youthful eye to the mix,” says Dennis.
“We ask her to buy some of the shop’s jewelry because she has a more youthful perspective,” says Dennis of her niece. And apparently the young Welsh has done well. “A lot of the items she has chosen have sold,” Dennis says.
An array of items in the store reflects the taste of three. Photo/Erin Silvert-Noftle
Jewelry, in fact, is one of Loot’s better selling-items. So are the clothes. Loot carries the Flax clothing line, which Dennis says has the kind of interesting, imperfect textural elements she looks for.
“The store next to ours carried the Flax line and when it went out of business, we would have people wandering over, asking us about the clothing,” says Potts. Offering it in Loot was “a no brainer,” she says, “and it’s doing really well.”
But it’s hard to really point to the store’s best sellers, says Welsh.
“It depends on the season and what people are looking for at the moment,” she says.
During Christmas, it’s unique ornaments, but bedding, art, painted furniture, and home décor items have all had a turn in the spotlight.
“We’re becoming almost like a mini-department store with all the items we carry,” says Welsh.
And as Lott’s “trend-buyer,” Welsh says she works hard to discover the next new thing for Loot customers. “Sometimes it’s stars, sometimes it’s hearts, sometimes it’s what color is hot,” she says. Right now, bright colors and metallics are popular for personal accessories and apparel. “For home trends, we have been seeing a lot of natural elements – nests, birds, flowers, mixed with a mod image and an emphasis on eco-friendly and green,” says Dennis. Also new this season is French furniture with plain linen ivory fabric and painted frames in ice blue or white.
“When I’m shopping for trends, I look for obscure artists,” says Welsh, “ones who haven’t made a name for themselves yet. As soon as they do, I move on to the next obscure artist.”
It’s what makes Loot able to set trends instead of following them. And it’s what keeps customers returning to the store, again and again, to see what’s new.
“We have lots of regulars, lots of local customers,” says Welsh. Adds Potts: “We’ve had people who live or work in the neighborhood stop by after we receive a shipment, just to see what we’ve bought.”
But Loot also draws a respectable number of people from the suburbs, from out of town and even out of state.
“Our location near the cap brings us a lot of convention traffic,” says Dennis. And, amazingly, those people continue to visit Loot whenever they’re back in town, or they browse Loot’s Web site (www.lootstyle.com)
“I know that because I’m shipping a lot of packages to them,” says Welsh.
When asked specifically to describe their store, all three have difficulty putting it into words.
“I’m asked that all the time,” says Welsh. “I just tell people it’s a mixture of things.”
“Our tag line is treasures for the home,” says Potts. “I think of our merchandise as a panorama of interesting one-of-a-kind objects. I call it the mall alternative.”
Says Dennis, “It’s a home furnishings store – but it’s a lot more, too. I’ve heard people say it reminds them of an Anthropologie for older people.” (Anthropologie, a high-end clothing store run by Urban Outfitters, sells a variety of other merchandise, including furniture and home décor items.)
In the Short North, though, Loot’s loyal customers don’t really care how the store is described or what it resembles. They know Loot as the kind of place to shop for gifts, for fun, for trends, for that odd mix of sophistication and funk, for items you just won’t see anywhere else. And for shoppers, it really doesn’t get much better than that.
Loot is located at 641 N. High Street. Hours are Monday - Saturday 10 to 6 and Sunday noon to 4.
Call 614-221-5688. Visit www.lootstyle.com
© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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