Whimsical and mystical blend at two boutiques Owner of Discoveries follows her unique fancies and prospers.

June 19, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

They sit, reclining in china tea cups, wood nymphs who perhaps made a wrong turn and decided to stop and rest in an isolated cottage.

Their wispy dresses billow, and silken hair cascades around their tiny faces. Their expressions linger between bliss and melancholy.

Fantasy, of course.

"Fairies in Teacups" in reality is a series of porcelain figures, the work of New York artists Stephanie Blythe and Susan Snodgrass. The figures are found in the Baltimore area exclusively at Discoveries, two boutiques in historic Ellicott City and the Columbia Mall.

The teacup fairies, along with those that ride miniature finches or sit on crystal pedestals, sell for between $400 and $1,800.

Entering Discoveries is to step back to a time that never really existed, except in fairy tales.

In these eclectic shops, the whimsical, the mystical and the bizarre all meet. And not every thing is on the upper end of the price scale. Kaleidoscopes are $11, magic wands are $5, and mugs shaped like the faces of the potter's friends are $11 each.

Discoveries is at once light-hearted and darkly mysterious. A large White Rabbit and Mad Hatter are among many Alice in Wonderland figures in the mall store. An enormous fairy named Sweetcakes, who stares with green, cat-like eyes, sits motionless on a wicker chair.

A wood carving of an elderly woman, nearly 4 feet tall and adorned in a black threadbare dress, carries cages containing tiny birds on her back and arms. Called "The Bird Peddler," she sells for $749.

Sally Tennant, the owner of Discoveries, says that when she opened her first store in 1982, "I didn't want to do the same thing that everyone else had done."

That was when she was leasing 400 square feet in Ellicott City. The space proved too small, so two years later, when a building that housed an old grocery store became available across the street, Tennant bought it.

With 1,400 square feet of retail space, Tennant finally could carry the depth of inventory she wanted, to "blow it away," as she says. It meant being able to "make a statement in every category I carried."

The move also brought in more business, as people discovered that Discoveries was the place to find crafts that were truly different.

For example, in her current stock, Tennant carries one-of-a-kind creations by Josh Simpson, who has exhibited in such major museums as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. His glass-blown spheres, called Inhabited Planets, are priced between $40 and $1,500 and displayed in a variety of sizes.

A viewer peering through the clear, glass globes of Inhabited Planets looks down on worlds that appear to have deep oceans, mountain expanses, forests and active volcanoes. As evidence that some of these planets may be inhabited by intelligent life, some appear to have satellites and space ships circling about them.

The Rouse Co., the developer of Columbia Mall, tried to recruit Tennant to expand beyond Ellicott City. She rejected the overtures until 1989. "I wasn't sure I wanted to play with the big kids," she explains. "And I wasn't sure the mall set was ready for this."

It was. Tennant's mall shop has become her most profitable, she says. It sits in a prime location, on the first-floor periphery of a center atrium and near a food court that generates traffic.

Mall manager William Nunn says the location had been earmarked for a clothing store. Discoveries, however, proved a better alternative.

"I feel that we hit a home run from the standpoint of merchandise mix," says Nunn, adding that Tennant's main attribute is that she strives to bring unique merchandise to the marketplace.

An assortment of creatures greet shoppers at every turn, peering out from the shop's windows, hanging from ceilings, sitting atop wooden display cases. Interspersed are cleverly decorated pottery sets, blown-glass conversation pieces and jewelry. Greeting cards with distinctive illustrations sell for under $2.

"I used to think it was all luck -- luck and timing," Tennant says, explaining her buying technique. "Now, I think I have a gift for buying, for picking things people will like."

Occasionally, she makes a purchase that customers snub, such as the "fantastic, multicolored umbrellas" that ended up in storage.

"They were hand done, hand painted. But it didn't work. For display purposes and everything else, it was just wrong," says Tennant. "When I bought them, it was just a silly mood," she concludes.

Tennant says she believes her shops have been successful because "I was willing to take a risk about the things I would buy."

Tennant's life has been a lesson in when to take risks.

Before opening her first store, the 36-year-old merchant spent five years as a therapist in a private psychiatric center. She discovered it was not the career she wanted.

"I guess I wasn't managing stress too well because I hated office politics and there was a lot of it," she says.

While five years proved too long, she learned from the experience.

"I knew that I stayed on at a job I didn't like because I was afraid to take risk," she says. "So, I knew when I started my own business, if it was going to work, I had to take risks. And it worked. I wasn't afraid to fail." With business going so well, Tennant says, "growth is a definite possibility," and she is investigating other locations.

In the meantime, things are changing constantly at Discoveries. On no two days will the store look exactly the same, she says. Merchandise is constantly being rearranged, as old items are sold or given new spots in the store. New items, some more bizarre than the old, are also taking their places on the shelves.

Says Tennant, "In that way we're always growing and changing. That's just a part of what we are."

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