A gifted existence

Times Staff Writer

Mrs. Tiggy Winkles in downtown Riverside is an old-fashioned emporium so jampacked with curios and artisan-made objects that one shopper got wedged into a display on a recent visit. Shop owner CeeAnn Thiel, who founded Mrs. Tiggy Winkles 32 years ago, rushed over.

"You break it, you don't have to buy it," said the 60-year-old Thiel, offering a hand to help the woman. "That's the rule in this shop. It's my fault for making it crowded."

Miles away in distance and decor is Zipper, a shop on a hip stretch of L.A.'s 3rd Street near the Grove shopping mall.

In one light and airy corner, large stone slabs last year provided the backdrop for a serene display that Steven Saden, who co-founded the store 13 years ago, called "Zen with fishing." Those slabs now support his "modern cabin" display featuring twig baskets, needlepoint pillows and hammered bowls.

"The key is to reinvent yourself every year," said Saden, 51. "It's pure theater. If we're bored with it, so is the customer."

Mrs. Tiggy Winkles and Zipper have little in common except this: Both are thriving at a time when many independent gift shops are not.

In the face of competition from mass merchandisers and online sellers, shops that once were community fixtures are failing at the rate of almost 60% a year, according to the Gift Assn. of America. Even though new gift shops open all the time, the brisk attrition makes it tough to keep up the ranks of the 1,000-member organization.

"It's like they join and then we can't find them anymore," said Michael Russo, the trade group's chairman.

Research group IBISWorld Inc. wasn't quite as dire in its recent report on gift, novelty and souvenir stores, but it said that in the next five years the industry "will shift from a mature to a decline phase of its life cycle."

Mrs. Tiggy Winkles and Zipper -- each of which has sales of about $1 million a year -- hardly seem in decline this holiday season, with steady streams of customers even on weekday afternoons. But both had to endure rocky early years before catching on.

Mrs. Tiggy Winkles began in a small space in the famed Mission Inn Hotel in downtown Riverside, where Thiel sold wooden toys from Germany and high-end stuffed animals.

"I would not allow anything plastic in the shop," Thiel said. She looked at a small case where she still has some of the toys for sale, remarking, "And I thought I could make a living off that?"

It's a common blunder, Russo said. "When I ask some store owners why they got in the business, they say, 'Because I like pretty things,' " he said. "They have to get beyond that."

Thiel wasn't operating the store as a hobby. "I had gotten divorced and I had two kids," she said. "I had to make it work."

Saden and co-founder Elizabeth Cashour started Zipper with their savings and credit cards. The initial concept was to go with a storewide theme that would change about every three months. "The first one was 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and everything had to do with breakfast," Cashour said. "People loved it."

The second theme was picnics, featuring vintage 1950s picnic baskets. "And it just sat," Cashour said. "No one bought anything. It was horrible."

They were saved at the last minute when a set decorator on the Patrick Swayze film "Three Wishes," the setting of which took place in 1955, came by and bought nearly everything.

Saden and Cashour gave up the theme idea and diversified. They also steered away from vintage. "When EBay hit, vintage mostly went online anyway," she said.

Zipper, which has two full-time employees, has its own e-commerce site that is run out of the back of the shop. It brings in an additional $200,000 in sales, which the owners expect will grow. Russo said the key to survival for a gift shop lay in finding unusual products.

"The owner of a shop called me a couple of weeks ago, all upset, to say she was selling red glass Christmas balls for $2.99, and the mass merchandiser nearby was selling the same things for $1.99," he said.

"The only good answer was that she should not have bought them in the first place. If the guy up the street is a million times bigger, why carry the same item?"

Thiel, who has three full-time employees, travels to most of the major annual gift shows in the country to look for products. She also buys from artisans who produce one-of-a-kind pieces.

"I personally choose every item," Thiel said. "That way, I can tell you a story about every single thing in the store."

Kristi Topp of Riverside visits Mrs. Tiggy Winkles -- named for a character created by children's author Beatrix Potter -- several times during the holiday season.

"You can't find this stuff in a big store," she said, taking a large metal sconce that holds candles to the cash register. "I can't get out of here without spending $200."

At Zipper -- where shoppers can spend $3 for a key chain in the shape of a pig or $3,000 for a handmade vase -- the owners not only search out unusual fare but also sometimes dictate its look. "Two guys came in a few years ago with old milk bottles they had sandblasted and added words like 'Mom' and 'Kitty,' " said Cashour, 51, who wrote several plays that were produced in New York before moving West.

"We told them we'll take six dozen, and here's the words we want on them."

Pam Danzinger, owner of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa., said the successful gift shop wasn't about the product. "It's a people business," she said.

"Shoppers come to them because they like the experience. The owners are really excited about what they are doing, and that transfers to the customer. Wal-Mart doesn't have that -- they are just selling product."

Mrs. Tiggy Winkles and Zipper have that covered too. In fact, loyal patrons' emotional stake in a shop can sometimes get in the way.

"They are very vocal about what they want to see, and don't want to see, in the store," Cashour said. "We once had a nice Mickey Mouse pen by a famous designer, and several customers said they didn't like that. We are supposed to be new and different, and that didn't include anything Disney.

"Now when a vendor comes in and says, 'We have an alternative Mickey Mouse product,' I tell them to not even take it out of the box."

Thiel said some of her customers had been coming to the store for decades, which sometimes brought on emotional scenes.

"For years, there were these three sisters who made it a tradition to come up together from Orange County and do Christmas shopping," she said. "This year, there were only two of them; one had died. We stood in the store and all cried."

The personal connection that Danzinger believes is so important is usually centered on the owner of a shop. Except for an annual visit to her daughter in Australia, Thiel rarely takes a full day off.

At Zipper, either Saden or Cashour is usually on hand. They opened a second store in Brooklyn in 2002 but closed it this year because of disappointing sales. Cashour blamed it mostly on the fact that they couldn't spend more time in that shop.

Perhaps the most important feature of an independent gift shop is its personality, imparted directly from the owner.

"I had this fantasy that after our store was up and running, I could work part time and write a play," Cashour said. "It doesn't work that way in this business."

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david.colker@latimes.com

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