Columbus, Ohio USA
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What the Rock?!
10 years and still rockin'
By Karen Edwards
September/October 2016 Issue
EDITOR'S NOTE: In December 2016, the store moved to 3039 Indianola Avenue after closing the 1194 N. High Street location.
Heather Ziegler and Michael Renner, owners of What the Rock?!, a hip,
unique rock and roll boutique at 1194 N. High Street. Photo © Larry Hamill
Punk, funk, goth, indie, hard, metal. Rock covers a wide gamut of music styles that have been changing and evolving since the 1950s and continue to evolve today. What makes rock such an enduring, all-encompassing music style, however, may be due more to its powerful, persuasive impact on social culture than on its pounding, amplified beat. For many individuals, rock isn’t just a sound they grew up with, or simply music that echoes the soundtrack of their lives. For these people, rock is a lifestyle – and if you’re one of those people and you are unfamiliar with the esoteric Short North boutique, What the Rock?! – well, what the….? You been living under a rock?
What the Rock?!, located at 1194 N. High Street, just up the block from Skully’s Music-Diner (if you’re heading north), is owned by Michael Renner and wife Heather Ziegler. The shop celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – and the fact that it’s here at all may be a bit of a fluke.
Living the dream
Renner and Ziegler are true examples of a rock, live-and-let-live lifestyle. While in their mid-20s, the pair packed up their car and set off with a couple of friends to sunny California. “No place to stay, no job, just living the dream,” recalls Ziegler. Of course, Renner had been a theater major at Ohio State, with some Reality Theatre jobs under his belt, so there was always the possibility of finding an acting job. And Ziegler made jewelry, which she could sell and add to their income. But don’t misunderstand this pair. They may follow their hearts, but their heads are definitely filled with a Midwest practicality. Both took day jobs on arriving – Renner as a floor manager for F.A.O. Schwarz, before Smith & Hawken recruited him for a store manager job; Ziegler, at a variety of jobs. She found work as a floor manager at a bead store; in sales at a record shop and even worked at a botanical garden for a while. All in all, it was a good life, but the high cost of California living eventually had them turning their eyes back toward home. Besides, both of their families still lived in Ohio.
Before they left the Golden State, however, Renner and Ziegler had started a website, a forerunner of What the Rock?! It had been a successful enterprise, so, the pair thought, why not start a brick-and-mortar version of their website when they returned home? Both had retail management experience. They knew from their site what sold and what didn’t. And nobody else in Columbus was offering their creative selection of rock-style paraphernalia. They could still have the rock lifestyle they had sought in California, but do so in Ohio. Now the question – where to locate this new shop?
Ziegler had lived for a brief time in the Short North (and once worked at the now defunct Bermuda Onion deli), so she scoured Craigslist Columbus for rental space in the area.
“When we left Ohio, the Short North had the kind of vibe we were looking for, but we had no idea that it had become so trendy,” says Renner.
They found a small space, about 300 square feet, listed for rent. “It was at 1116 High Street,” says Renner, a space not far from Mary Catherine’s Antiques and owned by Mary Catherine owner Melaine Mahaffey. The area looked like a good fit for a rock store – Little Brother’s was up the street. So was Skully’s Music-Diner and Magnolia Thunderpussy, so the pair knew the area had the right vibe. They took a leap – like driving out to California without plans. “Sight unseen, we rented it,” says Renner. They’ve never regretted their decision. The location was perfect “We’d get concertgoers on their way to Little Brothers, and we’d get band members who were playing there,” says Renner. Thunderpussy’s and Skully’s also drove in the kind of clientele the fledgling What the Rock?! needed.
Before they opened their shop, officially, it needed a name. Renner and Ziegler decided to recruit help. They presented their family with a list of potential names for the store. “We had family members vote on their favorite,” says Ziegler. The pair supplied the choices. “We didn’t open it to their suggestions,” Ziegler says. Hands-down, “What the Rock” was the family favorite.
If real estate is all about “location, location, location,” What the Rock’s original 300-foot space established its rock reputation. Two years, later, however, the shop simply outgrew its space, and Renner and Ziegler moved What the Rock?! to its present location further north – just south of Fifth Avenue.
The Rock Lifestyle
To stock a shop like What the Rock?! – and to shop there – you really need to appreciate the rock lifestyle.
What is the rock lifestyle, exactly?
Ask Renner and he’ll tell you it’s the enjoyment that comes from having music in your life. “You support local bands, you go to concerts. I’m not someone who can be in a band, so What the Rock?! is my outlet.”
“A rock lifestyle is living outside of that 9-to-5 routine,” says Ziegler. “You aren’t stuck in the mundane.” It’s choosing to follow an alternative path. It’s living the dream.
That doesn’t mean you shirk responsibility, though. Both Renner and Ziegler work hard to keep their shop a success, and both are also active in the community. Renner has been a member of the Italian Village Society Board, and was an inaugural member of the Short North Alliance Board. In addition, the two are frequently organizing or participating in various community events, like ComFest or the recent Food Truck Festival, as well as an assortment of festivals and concerts. If you can make it to one of the What the Rock’s Christmas shows it would be worth your time. “We’ll take punk rock songs, for example, and fit in Christmas lyrics,” says Renner. In addition, the shop hosts an annual Killer Craft Show each Halloween. If your tastes run toward the dark side of the holiday, go. (Goths would feel at home here.)
Ziegler does much of the buying for What the Rock?! – and provides it with her own handmade, rock-inspired jewelry as well. Some of her best-selling pieces feature lyrics from classic rock songs or profile popular rock artists. “I did a set of Hall and Oates earrings, with Daryl Hall on one side and John Oates on the other,” she says.
In terms of the shop’s general merchandise, “I like things that are unique, edgy – things that have a different vibe,” she says. So, if you’ve always wanted a dress with a skull-and-bat design, a pair of Lily Munster-inspired leggings, a cropped leopard-print Eisenhower jacket, or an x-ray skeleton tea towel, then this is where to go. “Currently, our bestsellers are patches and pins you can put on jackets,” says Ziegler. Old-fashioned lunchboxes are coming back along with the retro look, and the shop has just started to carry a bit of taxidermy – animal skulls.
One of the shop’s bestsellers, though, may surprise you. “We sell a lot of onesies,” says Ziegler. Onesies, as in a baby’s traditional one-piece suit? Yep, and they are adorable. You might find a Beatles Yellow Submarine onesie, in bright yellow, of course, complete with a little propeller on its derriere, or maybe a “My dad rocks” onesie, or how about a onesie that isn’t afraid to spout the message: “I Still Live with My Parents.” (For traditionalists, there is a Cat in the Hat onesie as well.) Parents can find an assortment of rock-and-roll themed baby and children’s items, simply because they sell well. “It’s a niche market that nobody else is filling right now,” says Ziegler.
They tried stocking rock-and-roll items for pets, but that area wasn’t as successful for them, says Renner. “Pet items with a rock-and-roll theme are hard to find,” he says. And there is a lot of competition out there when it comes to pet costumes. “A lot of the big-box stores are doing it, and we can’t compete with that,” he adds.
Renner says he also regrets a brief foray into the comic-book world. At the time, superhero movies were extremely popular, so the shop began to carry comic book-themed merchandise. “We lost our focus,” Renner says. It didn’t take long, though, before the shop shifted back to its all rock and roll format – all the time.
The pair works with small, local vendors when they can, “But they can’t always provide the kind of quantity we need,” says Renner, so Ziegler turns to Etsy and other sources to fill the shop with the kind of curiosities the shop’s clientele admires. “Right now, we’re gearing up for Halloween,” says Ziegler. That means skulls, bats, Mexican Day-of-the-Dead merchandise, anything spooky and macabre. If you’re the type of person who lives for October 31, then you owe yourself a trip to What the Rock?! before the month is out.
But that doesn’t mean the shop sits vacant during the traditional holiday season. “We get a lot of shoppers in November and December,” says Renner.
There is no typical What the Rock?! customer, by the way. “We get all kinds of people, from teens to seniors,” says Ziegler. After all, the rock genre started when the baby boomers were just coming of age, and it’s never really disappeared. Rock covers generations of listeners, so it’s no surprise that What the Rock?! sees a multi-generational clientele. They just hope their customers walk away with something that’s uniquely different, whether it’s a gift for someone, or simply a gift for themselves. “I hope people say What the Rock?! is a hip and unique boutique with an array of one-of-a-kind gift items,” says Renner.
Yes, Renner and Ziegler carry a lot of responsibility as shop owners and community supporters – but that doesn’t mean they don’t make time for fun. Sometimes, work and fun can even be combined. “We do the festival circuit,” says Renner. That means they put together a What the Rock?! pop-up shop at rock festivals taking place all over the country. Every weekend during most summers, they’re off to a new rock festival. You can’t get more rock-n-roll than that.
When in town, the pair likes to swim and hike metropolitan and state park trails, often with their dog Sparky in tow. (They also own a black cat that stays indoors primarily, but wears a glow-in-the-dark collar in case of escapes.) Ziegler likes to garden, both flowers and vegetables, and make jewelry of course.
But what does off-the-clock matter, really? When you’re doing work you love, and you’re living the rock-and-roll dream, you don’t have to always look toward the end of the day for enjoyment. It’s there for you all day long.
When Renner and Ziegler moved into the Short North storefront that first day, they were surprised to be on the cutting edge of a trend. The Short North was coming into its own as a cool place to be. Even now, like all communities, the Short North is continuing to evolve. It’s beicoming more urban chic, with well-known retail names encroaching on space where unique boutiques, art galleries, and happening eateries once stood. For a couple with a rock-and-roll lifestyle, however, urban chic is not a promising sign.
“We don’t know what will happen over the next ten years,” says Renner. In the future, there may be a move to the next hip district. Maybe somewhere the urban chics haven’t discovered yet. After all, the urban chic customer isn’t usually the counter-culture type. But for now, What the Rock?! will continue to be a Short North destination stop for rock’s diehard fans.
No matter where it moves, if it moves, Renner and Ziegler will continue to sling their fortunes at What the Rock?! There is no thought of moving into something else. Remember, this is a couple living their dreams, living the rock lifestyle. If they hadn’t met and founded What the Rock?!, where would they have been? What would they have done? Of course, rock fans everywhere are glad that question never had to be asked. But when pushed to respond to the hypothetical, their answers are as true to form as their carefully curated rock shop: “I’d probably make jewelry and sell it on the beach,” says Ziegler. Renner says, “I’d probably own a hot dog cart.”
That’s the rock lifestyle. That’s Renner and Ziegler. That’s What the Rock?!
Killer Craft Show IV, a Halloween-themed event celebrating the dark, weird and bizarre, will be held on Saturday, October 22, 2016, from Noon until 5 p.m. at Three Sheets Bar in the Brewery District, 560 S. High St. The show presented by What The Rock?! features vendors offering an array of items in the holiday spirit along with a full bar-and-food menu.
© 2016 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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