In 1966, Como Avenue in St. Anthony Park was a hive of commercial activity. There was Mrs. Strandy’s Bakery, Villa Sportswear, Buzz McCann’s auto repair shop, Guertin Pharmacy, and, oh, yes, a small gift store that had taken over the spot previously occupied by the Park Apparel Shoppe. Fifty years later, not one of those other businesses remains; but the little gift shop has become the Bibelot—a four-store chain that is a monument to the good taste, pioneering merchandising methods and business savvy of its owner, Roxana Freese.
The Bibelot will celebrate its 50th birthday this month with an open house for staff and neighbors on Saturday, Sept. 10, from 1 to 3 p.m., followed by the store’s traditional fall sale, starting on Friday, Sept. 16.
For Freese, who continues to play an active part in the business, it’s a time of pride and reflection on a half-century of accomplishment. She was a 34-year-old single mother of three, looking for a way to support her family, when she got the idea of opening a shop that would sell the kind of beautiful objects she had previously encountered only in museum gift shops of the era.
“I had no retail experience, but I’d done a lot of shopping,” she says. “I loved museum-reproduction jewelry.”
When she applied for a $10,000 business loan to bring her vision to life, “the bank thought I was crazy.” She got the money only because her father agreed to co-sign the note.
Freese took the name of her new store from the French word for a “small precious object,” and she says that was a mistake. “If I were to do it again, I’d choose something less obscure. Lots of people still say ‘Bible-Lot,’ and they think it’s a religious goods store.”
The early years were both hectic and rewarding. Freese’s children attended nearby St. Anthony Park Elementary School. They were frequent after-school visitors to the store, as was the family sheepdog, Ilya. Named for a character from the hit 1960s TV show The Man From Uncle, Ilya was unconstrained by the existence of a leash law in those distant times. Many former customers remember his unexpected—but always welcome—appearances.
Freese recalls the store’s first after-Christmas sale, an event that has since become a time-hallowed tradition.
“To our amazement, our customers were lining up outside, with the line even extending around the corner. She emphasizes that the Bibelot of the early days “benefited from much help from family and from neighborhood friends,” as well as a spirit of happy improvisation. “Our first real employee was a student at the St. Paul campus,” she says. “She saw us setting up and said, ‘Do you need me?’ ”
Over the years, both Freese’s employees and her customers have proved loyal and long-lasting. Many of her employees as have worked more than 30 years at the shop. Jolene Borland, current manager of the Como Avenue store, began working at the Bibelot in 1993. But before that, she was customer going back to the mid-’70s.
“I still see a lot of original customers,” Borland says. “[They’re] former students at the U or the seminary or people who grew up in the neighborhood. Some of them are coming back with their daughters now.”
Borland’s “most heart-warming customer” is from the neighborhood. “At Christmas, she bakes large trays of candies and cookies for us staff to thank us for being here. It’s that kindness that we appreciate so much.”
The cookie-baking customer may be more demonstrative than some, but she’s not unusual in her affection for the Bibelot. As part of their anniversary celebrations, the Bibelot has been providing cards to encourage customers to jot down brief memories of the store. Some of the writers now live as far away as Canada or Ashland, Ore., but their memories focus on their childhood or teenage years where the Bibelot formed the backdrop to the vivid experiences of youth. In sharing the cards, the store asked that only first names be used:
Anna thanked the store for providing “beauty in my life,” as well as the opportunity to spend her money on “Beanie Babies, lovely soaps and a collection of patterned Kleenexes that my family made fun of. …”
Karen talked about getting her first pair of glasses at “Group Health” when she was 10. “I was unhappy how I looked in glasses, so we came to the Bibelot” for consolation. Patricia talks about finding “the perfect dress for honeymoon” at the store, and Susan had an even more vivid recollection. “I was going on a first date,” she writes, explaining that she had picked up her newly cleaned dress at the cleaners and stopped to change into it at a nearby gym, but when she opened it, “it had not been pressed and it looked awful! The only idea I had was to run across to the Bibelot and see if they had a steamer. They did, they were happy to help me and put me at ease for asking.” Problem solved and a calamity averted!
Katherine remembered a slightly later period of her life, when she worked at the Bibelot before going on to acquire an MBA and a business career: “Roxy supported me in going back to school and, more importantly, she role-modeled being a capable, independent woman with strong ties to the community.”
Over the years the Bibelot grew, first occupying more square footage and eventually both floors of its Como Avenue location. Freese recalls the electrifying moment when they cut a hole in the ceiling to connect the two floors. “Peeling off the decorative tin ceiling, it was an ah-ha moment!”
That modification made it possible to set up the two-story Christmas tree, which remained a holiday tradition for years. Eventually the Bibelot expanded to three other locations: Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Northeast Minneapolis and Linden Hills in Minneapolis.
Every retailer must accommodate the changing tastes of the public, but over the years some things remain unchanged at the Bibelot. There are what Freese calls the “Bibelot classics,” products that the store has carried since the beginning. Among them, John Booros’ woven throw rugs, Ed Levin sterling silver jewelry, the “Call Your Mother” mug and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book, Gift from the Sea.
At age 84, Freese no longer does the merchandise buying for the Bibelot, but she has no intention of retiring.
“I’ll go on as long as I can,” she says, adding, “markets change, people’s buying habits change, and I’m glad to have made it to 50.”