Bibelot at 50 Profile: Roxana Freese: Ownership, from necessity to passion
Roxana ("Roxy") Freese
Photograph by Sarah Whiting
"She really created the first lifestyle store in this part of the country." - Joan Arbisi Little, Roxana Freese's daughter
by Anne Hamre
The year was 1966. Roxana ("Roxy") Freese was a mother of three whose marriage was ending. You might not recognize her name, but you almost certainly know the name of the business she started 50 years ago in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood: The Bibelot Shops.
Her account of its founding is brisk and matter-of-fact.
"My life was in transition. Something needed to be done," she says. "Starting a business just made sense. We were living in St. Anthony Park; there was a [retail] space. And Bibelot was born."
In its early days, Freese says, Bibelot benefited considerably from the help of friends and family. Her dad, who was retired, helped with bookkeeping. Freese hadn't studied business or accounting; she was a fine arts major in college.
"Now," she notes, "Bibelot is my art form."
A sense of ownership
About a third of all Minnesota businesses are women-owned, according to the Legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women. While statistics don't go back that far, it's safe to say that 50 years ago, women business owners were far fewer in number.
Beyond a lack of female role models, women entrepreneurs confronted other barriers to entry. For example, Freese needed her father's signature to obtain a bank loan. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, authored by Congresswoman Bella Abzug, was still eight years away.
Driven by the need to support her family, Freese persevered with her unusual business concept. "It was this funny mix of things," she says of the shop - a description perhaps as apt today as it was then. On a recent visit to Bibelot, "Soap for Hipsters" (scent: coffee, bacon and craft beer) and tubes of Beard Lube shared display table space with bottles of aioli and barbeque sauce, while handmade scarves and prints by local artists mingle with books and décor featuring dogs, cats, wine, and the art of grilling.
Freese grew up with the feeling that "many horizons were open to me," she recalls. As a young person, she says, she was fortunate to be able to travel. When she did so, she gravitated to museums and their gift shops, with their artsy and often eclectic offerings.
"She really created the first lifestyle store in this part of the country," says Freese's daughter, Joan Arbisi Little. It wasn't long, adds Little, before others sought to duplicate it.
Now, Freese notes, the model of the artsy and eclectic gift shop "has become quite standard." But what's harder to duplicate is the sense of ownership Bibelot has fostered - on the part of employees, customers, and the neighborhoods where the four stores are nestled (St. Anthony Park, St. Paul's Grand Avenue, Minneapolis' Linden Hills, and Northeast Minneapolis).
From the start, Freese sought out and valued her employees' input and opinions, involving them in selecting the store's inventory and other decisions. She also valued their health; Bibelot offered health insurance to employees "before it became expected," says Little.
Perhaps because of this management style, many employees stay. For example, marketing and special events coordinator Jan Beebe has worked at Bibelot on a part-time, on-and-off basis for over 30 years, as have several other employees. Freese has had employees whose parents worked at Bibelot. Other "Bibelot alums" have been inspired to strike out on their own, going on to start their own businesses.
"A lot of customers feel as though they own [Bibelot] too - they feel part of it," says Freese. "What's especially fun is that many of our customers are second- and third-generation [customers]."
In addition, Bibelot fosters relationships with local artists. In many cases, Bibelot has been the first store to feature their work, says Freese.
Leap of faith
Bibelot - which means "a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity" - has come a long way since 1966, when it opened with just a few part-time staffers.
Freese, who readily acknowledges identifying as a "Bohemian" in her youth, says someone summed up the store in its early years as a "straight head shop." There was a corner devoted to imported clothing from India, she says, and "posters were big." Nowadays, rather than posters, shoppers encounter such items as lithographic prints by Minnesota artists. Clothing is a significant part of the business in three shops. Inventory includes locally made jewelry and pottery, wooden or faux marble plaques, stained glass window hangings, and magnets and mugs with affirming messages.
One mug exhorts: "Proceed as if success is inevitable." Fifty years ago, Roxy Freese did exactly that.
"It was a leap of faith. It succeeded because it had to," she reflects. "If I could have sold my art to support my family, I would have."
The stores now employ about 74 people (increasing to nearly 100 around the holidays). The 84-year-old Freese typically comes into the office about four days per week. "It's simply who I am and what I do," she says.
Asked whether she envisions any additional Bibelot shops in the future, Freese replies: "Who knows?" - prompting Beebe to mention that a customer from Wayzata sent a card recently, lobbying for a Bibelot shop in that community.
But that's nothing new, notes daughter Little. "She's been getting those cards since the early 1970s."
50 years of Bibelot
Bibelot is celebrating its 50th anniversary with events, including an Open House at the St. Paul Como Ave. store on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, 1-3 p.m.
Check the website for more:
Store locations: 2276 Como Ave., St. Paul (opened 1966)
1082 Grand Ave., St. Paul (1987)
4315 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis (1992)
23 University Ave S.E., Minneapolis (2002)
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