By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Amy Craft Ahrens is celebrating 20 years of running For Keeps in downtown Bowling Green, and she wants her customers to have a piece of the action.
That’ll be especially true for one lucky customer in particular. As part of the celebration, the shop is holding a party under a tent Saturday Aug. 19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The shop is handing out puzzle pieces. One of those pieces will complete a puzzle on display in the party tent. The person who gets the piece will receive a $250 gift card. Another 50 prizes will be given out as part of puzzle game.
Craft Ahrens said that every year she has a sale to mark the anniversary of the opening of the store, but this year being a milestone she decided to expand the celebration.
There’ll be cookies from the Cookie Jar, in keeping with Craft Ahrens’ shop local philosophy. Mimosas until their gone and beer, wine and soft drinks. Grab bags for $1, $3, $5 and $10 containing “a hodgepodge of goodies” worth at least twice the price. Customers can participate in a trivia contest about the store with questions such as how many women named Amy have worked there. And there’ll be goats. Craft Ahrens fancies goats, and when she was in Boston to run in the marathon earlier this year, the hotel she was staying in had goats, so she thought: “Why can’t I?”
The sale will run from Friday through Sunday. Balloons will be strewn about the floor, and inside will be a tag denoting a discount from 10 to 30 percent, on merchandise, and this year cash rewards.
All this to celebrate a space that was planned to be an extension of ACE Hardware next door.
Craft Ahrens said that her father, Floyd Craft, who owns ACE and Ben Franklin, bought the building in 1996. Like so many downtown storefronts it had a number of incarnations, the most recent as an Eagles Club.
Craft gutted the space. When the drop ceiling was removed it revealed an embossed tin ceiling and a balcony that no one had known was there. Craft was able to locate the tiles missing from the ceiling.
Craft Ahrens liked the space and asked her dad what he intended to do with it. He told he was going to cut a doorway on the north wall and use it as an extension of the hardware store.
Craft Ahrens, who was working in a gift shop in Chicago, thought such a distinctive space had the promise to be something more. “I thought there was room in Bowling Green for another gift shop,” she said. “So six months later I came back and started filling it up.”
Being in retail is in Craft Ahrens’ blood. She was 9 when her family moved to Bowling Green so her father could open the Ben Franklin store. It was a family endeavor.
“I was working the cash register as soon as I was tall enough,” she said.
And she worked there while in college. She majored in German and minored in Russia at Bowling Green State University studying in Salzburg, and then lived a year in Japan. (Her husband Todd Ahrens also attended BGSU as a graduate student in German, though the couple didn’t meet here.) When she returned to the states, Craft Ahrens took a job in retail with a science and nature gift shop in Chicago.
“It’s what I know,” Craft Ahrens said. She said she hadn’t realized just how much she’d picked up working in the family business until she interviewed for her first retail job.
Retail work, she said is not for everyone. She knows that from her own experience of hiring employees. The concept of “the customer is always right” isn’t a natural fit for everybody, she said. And “some people struggle with the chatting-with-strangers part.”
But for Craft Ahrens the shop is where she belongs.
When For Keeps opened in in 1997, it was focused on collectibles – Boyds Bears, Precious Moments, Beanie Babies. But the short recession that followed the 9/11 attacks “took the air out of collectibles,” she said.
Now that market has moved to the internet.
But shifting merchandise is all part of the business, Craft Ahrens said.
When one category stops being popular, she said, she just finds the next hot thing. And she’s never sure what that that will be. “It’s a crap shoot.”
Items that seem like there’ll be sure sellers, flop, other brands she takes a flyer on, end up moving briskly. “You just have to keep trying things. If it doesn’t work, try something else.”
That something else can be surprising. Blue Q socks, with their sassy, sometimes off-color sayings, have proved a big seller, outpacing Yankee candles.
The shop also does well with the Natural Life line. She’d stocked it 10 years ago and the merchandise didn’t move. Then she saw the company had some new items, so she picked it up again, and it’s doing well.
Simply Southern t-shirts are doing well, especially with younger women.
Craft Ahrens said that older college women are part of the For Keeps customer mix. “They are just starting to think about feathering their nests,” she said.
The main target demographic, though, is women between 25 and 65.
Craft Ahrens said she does 90 percent of the buying for the store, but gets guidance from Amy Kolan, who has worked at For Keeps since it opened, and Augusta Anderson Jeffer, who has worked for the store for about eight years starting when she was a college student. Most of the shop’s employees are university students, Craft Ahrens said.
All the long-time employees have different tastes, which helps find the right mix of goods. Craft Ahrens is always on the lookout. Even when she’s on vacation she’ll check out gift stores, hoping to get an idea for her shop.
“It’s like shopping except we don’t get to take it home,” she said.
Whether its Vera Bradley hand bags or Alex and Ani bracelets, “it’s the fun stuff you don’t need.”
That means, though, when money gets tight, the shop takes a hit. The recession after the housing collapse was brutal. Starting in 2009, each year got a little worse, until 2013 when “I didn’t know if we’d survive.”
Then the business turned up in 2014, and “2015 was our best year.”
The Christmas holidays are the best five weeks for the shop. The weekend right before Christmas is the best weekend of the year. The second biggest is during the Black Swamp Arts Festival. Her father was one of the founders of the event and helped it financially after a disastrous first year. Craft Ahrens has been involved as well since moving back to Bowling Green, chairing the concessions committee.
Now, Craft Ahrens said, “the biggest challenge is internet sales.” She’s tried several different approaches and nothing seems to click. “Someday I’ll figure it out,” she said. “I know customers who have left the area and want to shop from afar.”
And she’d like to show that the customer is always right, even from a distance.