by Tina Manzer
Fort Collins, tucked between Colorado’s plains and mountains, is about an hour’s drive north of Denver. “It’s worth the visit” is an understatement. Home to Colorado State University, the city is a lively craft-beer-brewing hub and bustling shopping destination.
Among the many independent shops in the Old Town Historic District is Clothes Pony & Dandelion Toys, a 5,500-square-foot piece of heaven full of toys, games, books, kids’ clothes and fun. The building began life as a hotel in the 1880s, and in its basement are entrances to tunnels (now inaccessible) “used to take cash to the bank, sneak booze during prohibition, and move prostitutes out quickly during raids,” explains Becca Bramhall, who opened the store with her sister Jenny in 2003. Together with their employees, they dispense charm, delight and whimsy to local families and visitors alike. Becca talked to me recently about how they do it.
1. Stack your tutus high.
“Puppets, plush and costumes all share space in our small mezzanine. An overhang makes the space too short for parents, but just right for kids. They feel very daring, sneaky and safe there having tea parties with the stuffed animals, sword fights or just hiding! We call it ‘the mosh pit’ because it is well loved every single day!
“We carry dress-ups from Little Adventures, Creative Education, Puppet Workshop, Haba, Elope, Sarah’s Silks and more.”
2. “Just any old fixture” won’t do.
“We are avid thrift store/yard sale/flea market shoppers; the store is just an excuse to indulge in that pastime. Some of our ‘fixtures’ are charming enough when we buy them, others we paint – we love color! Our goal is to create a store full of charm, whimsy and delight.
“We change our displays as often as we can. One of our favorite games is finding an item we love that is not selling, and then moving it and displaying it differently. We stand back and watch as our regular customers ‘discover’ it and buy it!”
3. Let kids play with everything.
“Our only rule is ‘have fun and make a mess.’ If a box is not open, we will open it. We don’t expect parents to clean up after their kids, although many do. They feel that their kids are safe in our enclosed play area, and the rest of the store is free range. We want shoppers to enjoy spending a long time here.”
4. Become a resource for families.
“Our staff is multigenerational with moms and grandmas always ready with a helpful tip, a local resource, or heartfelt words of comfort. Our goal was to create a fun, nonjudgmental community for families to hang out. Thirteen years later, mission accomplished!”
5. Showcase charming items that stop shoppers in their tracks.
“Business is split about 50/50 between toys and apparel, shoes and accessories. It helps us have consistently good sales year-round, with less reliance on the fourth quarter. We sell apparel and shoes from newborn up to size 7 in boys, and size 14 to 16 in our tween boutique, Urban Blossom. We take buying trips to Los Angeles four times a year for apparel. Twice a year we go to shoe shows, either in Las Vegas or Atlanta.”
6. Create magic in awkward spaces.
“After we had been open for 10 years, we realized that our very first customers were aging out of the clothes we carried. The girls and their mothers were sad about that, so we decided to create a tween boutique upstairs. We hosted a focus group/party to find out what they wanted and what it should look like, and then designed the space according to their wishes. To really ‘wow’ them, we collected close to 30 different mirrors and painted them white, then hung them on a very high, very bare wall that we had painted deep purple.”
7. Develop enthusiastic employees.
“We just opened a second, much smaller store in Boulder, about an hour’s drive from here, so with the new staff, we employ 32, not counting Jenny and me. At any one time in the store, there are five to 12 or more people working, depending on events and the time of year.
8. Make your restroom playful and practical.
“The ‘Potty’ is wheelchair accessible. It includes the typical bathroom fixtures in addition to a training potty and a fully stocked changing table.”
9. Surprise moms with cool shoes – for them.
“Our women’s shoe department has grown from a couple of pairs a season to a fully stocked, full-service shoe department. We saw a need in Fort Collins for blending comfort with style. Our customers really appreciate it, especially the young and hip Baby Boomer grandparents who spend a great deal of time and money in our store!”
10. Communicate and decorate with chalk.
“Our store is so colorful that the only way a sign gets noticed is if it has a black background.”