At 26, Diane Hamilton swapped selling newspaper advertising for life as a shopkeeper.
It's an all-consuming career that began "as a leap of faith."
But she felt almost right from the start it would be a good fit.
"I'm a yacker. I thought it'd be fun."
Now 56, she's celebrating her 30th year as owner of The Cheesekeeper in the Arcades Shopping Center in west Belleville. The business offers everything from fine wine and cheese from around the world to specialty food items and whole-bean coffee.
She didn't have to go far to find her niche. A lifelong Belleville resident, Diane is a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School and the University of Missouri Columbia with a degree in journalism/advertising.
The sole proprietor and "still single," Diane says there's no time for hobbies, TV or much else other than work.
"But, you know I enjoy every minute of it."
Sporting jeans, a T-shirt and multiple bangles on her wrist, Diane said she has come a long way from being an ad representative for the News-Democrat.
"This was one of my accounts," she said of The Cheesekeeper. "I was with the paper for 3 1/2 years. After I quit, I went back to work on my master's and didn't like that. The owner here was thinking about selling it and he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I said no, then I went home and thought about it."
She came back to the shop and worked the Christmas season.
"Let's see how that goes," she recalled saying to herself.
At the time, the shop had no liquor license and sold just cheese and coffee.
"I didn't know a thing about wine then," she said. "There wasn't the Internet then, so I had books." She got a license two years later and learned about wine and pairings on the job.
Now, she carries more than 300 bottles of wine, 100 types of cheese, 30-plus kinds of crackers (including gluten-free), imported beer by the bottle, fresh breads and a wide variety of gourmet dips, spreads, sauces, sausage, salmon and herb mixes.
She's turned into a wine drinker, too. Her favorites? She's not picky.
"I like red and white, but nothing sweet."
Keeping up with the influx of new products has been a learning process.
"Twenty years ago, no one had heard of balsamic vinegar," Diane said. "And cheese: Ten years ago we started seeing the influx of artisan cheeses. The Danish cream cheese is our biggest seller ($9.99 a pound). And coffee, too. Everybody used to drink Folgers."
The most expensive cheese the business carries is the gouda with truffles for $29.99 a pound.
"But, you can buy that in any amount," said Diane. One of her favorites is Applewood Cheddar.
"It's from England and the cheese is smoked with applewood chips and then rolled in paprika."
It all somehow fits in her small store. When you walk in the door, the aroma of St. Louis' Chauvin coffee beans ($14.49 a pound up to $44.95 for Kona) will hit you. Perhaps Billie Holiday will be on the CD player.
"I have a small lending library, too," said Diane, pointing to a shelf of hardback books that customers swap.
While there are vacancies in the Arcades, Diane is not worried about her business.
"I don't feel alone here," she said. "My customers are so loyal. I have people who come from Mount Vernon, Collinsville, Granite City."
On a weekday afternoon, Trudy Effinger, of Belleville, walked in the door.
"My senses get all ...," she said inhaling and smiling.
She'd arrived to pick up a gift basket, which are big sellers for The Cheesekeeper.
"By mid-November, we get busy with gift baskets and boxes and corporate gifts," Diane said. "They're custom made and we deliver in town and ship a lot." Prices start at $20 and the shop had made $300 to $400 baskets.
Trudy just wanted something special for her sister: wine, cheese, crackers and a few extras.
"It's a unique little boutique," she said. "It makes me happy to come in here. The selection is just enough."
Where: 6500 W. Main St., Belleville (in the Arcades)
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays