NAMES AND JOBS:
John Conkright, owner of Ben's Crafts Framing Gifts Toys at 112 E. Main St. in Belleville (277-9278)
Beth Wamble, store manager
Outlook: "We're proud of the fact that we've been here for 36 years." (John Conkright)
John Conkright made his Ben's Crafts Framing Gifts Toys as a long-established retailer in downtown Belleville. More than three decades after he opened for business, more than 60 percent of his business comes from those who live outside of Belleville. His store is the largest retailer of Vera Bradley line and has the only Thomas Kinkade Signature Art Gallery in the St. Louis area. The business has become a family affair as his daughter Beth Wamble is the store manager. Both sat down and spoke with business writer Will Buss about their business' longevity:
Q: How did you get started?
John: "I was a district manager with W.T. Grant. They were in Shop City St. Louis and they were up here in Carlyle Plaza. It was a chain that went out of business. And when they went out of business, there was six of us district managers who decided to open up our own Ben Franklin stores. And I had been in this area, and before I left as a district manager, I was familiar with Belleville. I found this building that was up for lease. It was the old Sears building. And that was in 1976. I leased it, and it was 10,000 square feet. At that time, there were roughly 25 Ben Franklin stores in this area. None of them are still in existence. I am the only one that's still in business. And in the last six months, the last two Ben Franklin stores in St. Louis closed, but they had opened way after we did. There is one left in Eureka (in Missouri). We have had so may calls wondering if we were going to go out of business, too, because people read that. So we've weathered the storm."
John: "To do that, we changed our merchandise many times and changes our name three times. We started out as Ben Franklin, but as we got more competition from the big-box stores, Wal-Mart, etceteras, we changed our merchandise mix and went mainly to crafts and floral. And then we changed our name to Ben's Crafts and Floral. Then, we ended up doing so much more than that. We have a toy department that is 4,000 square feet, which is basically what we call the educational and specialty toys. It's the toys that the big-box stores don't carry. And that's taken off very well for us. In the last three months, we opened a new department which we call the home decor department, and that is just doing very well for us."
Q: Why open a Ben Franklin store?
John: "Well at that time, I had the training for that type of merchandise. I was a district manager and I had been working for 15 years. There were six of us district managers that went to open up a Ben Franklin. There are two of us left."
Q: How has your business evolved since opening?
John: "Very well. In fact, just recently, we had the best September we've had in three years. In October, we had the best October we've had in four years. That's quite impressive for this time and the economy. Recently we put in this home decor department, which really gave us more room. We have more room for gifts and more room for the things that we wanted. And we expanded more on out toys in our toy department. We're trying to stay on top of it."
Q: Beth, how did you get started at your father's store?
Beth: "I started in 1989, three years after I got out of college. My first job was working in public accounting, after I got out of college. Then, I came here and learned all of the different aspects of the business. I started learning the framing department and how to do framing. Then, I started learning the craft area and added more and more things on, and eventually running the whole store."
Q: What are your responsibilities as store manager?
Beth: "I learned all of the different aspects and now I oversee it all, like sales, advertising, personnel and customer service."
Q: Are other family members involved?
Beth: "My daughter workers here, and she is in charge of the toy department. Her name is Jill Spinnie. She is also my office manager."
Q: How have you been able to maintain your business for more than three decades in downtown Belleville, John?
John: "By listening to our customers and listening to employees, to tell you the truth. You learn from them. And my listening to them, we make the changes, and we have completely changed our inventory."
John: "When we opened up as Ben Franklin, we had eight linear feet of picture frames. Now, we have 2,000 square feet of picture frames with a custom-framing department. It's the same way with artificial flowers. We opened up with eight feet of artificial flowers on a counter, and now we have about 5,000 square feet of flowers. So it's a matter of listening to people, listening to customers and listening to employees. We go to many merchandise shows and look for new merchandise. So it's a combination of those things."
Q: What have you enjoyed most about it?
John: "We have an excellent crew here. I've got great people who work for me and it's a pleasure to work every day with these people because they have such a positive, upbeat mind and satisfy the customers. It's a thrill to find merchandise that people want, and we have it. There is not a day that goes by when someone goes by and compliments us on our inventory and our selection and the service they're getting. It's rewarding. It's very rewarding."
Q: What have you enjoyed most about working as an employee and member of a family-based business?
Beth: "It's very rewarding to help the customers and to find things that they're looking for and provide that service to the community."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.