Ellicott City shop owner displays a gift for displaying decorative items

September 06, 1992|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Chocolate truffles, bouquets of fresh flowers and gift wrap aren't usually the stuff that liquor stores are made of. Nor are elaborate window treatments and ornately stenciled walls considered the usual decor for a retail mall store.

Nonetheless, Nick Kourkoulas of Ellicott City has managed to pull off both non-conventional ideas in two successive businesses -- Jason's Liquors in Ellicott City, which he sold in March 1991, and his newest venture, Jennifer's, a gift store he opened two years ago in The Mall in Columbia.

Strangely enough, the entrepreneur's present business -- selling decorative items and gifts -- is an extension of the former one, in which he sold liquor, wine and beer. But it's not really so strange after observing the creative enthusiasm that seems to possess Mr. Kourkoulas, who can't resist the urge to straighten a picture frame or to rearrange a particular group of accessories in his present shop. The entrepreneur, who majored in English and psychology at the University of Maryland, has no formal art training but seems to have a knack for aesthetics.

When the 52-year-old businessman first purchased the liquor business in 1982, he had a vision.

"I wanted a department store look with copper, brass and red-oak accessories," said the Ellicott City resident. "I didn't want a typical ma and pa liquor store."

Potted and hanging plants, an oak armoire, antique etageres and a copper replica of a still were among the accouterments that made the liquor store a nice place to visit.

Mr. Kourkoulas went one step further when he interspersed among the decor gift items, such as food-laden baskets and whimsical gifts for golfers, which accounted for about 20 percent of the sales and ultimately encroached on the space for wine and liquor.

In June 1988, Mr. Kourkoulas decided to open a small gift store. The business, in a nearby shopping strip on U.S. 40, was named after his 22-year-old daughter, Jennifer. He noticed a trend toward traditional home accessories and decided to carry a line of Victorian-type items.

Once again putting his artistic bent into motion, Mr. Kourkoulas and the general manager and buyer he hired for Jason's five years ago, Marti Roberts of Columbia, carefully chose items at trade gift shows that included tapestry pillows, Battenburg lace linens and crystal stemware.

With the help of interior designer Carroll Frey of Dickeyville,the three managed to turn a sterile, box-shaped space into two rooms divided by a bay window. Also included were touches such as an arched cabinet and architectural details such as wainscoting and chair rails.

Taking his new business one step further, Mr. Kourkoulas approached the management of the Mall in Columbia about renting a cart to "get our name out more." But when mall staff visited the shop, it was concluded that a store would best fill a niche among gift shop businesses at the mall. Mr. Kourkoulas was offered a temporary location near Woodward and Lothrop in February 1990, and in October that year he opened in a permanent location at the center court of the mall.

"I wanted the space to look like a home," he said. "We put in a step-up to create a feeling of walking into another room, we used a lot of lamps rather than overhead lighting, we [visually] lowered the ceilings by hanging the draperies and we arranged the items in groupings."

Since then, the entrepreneur's creative juices are always flowing. He once tied two wrought iron bird case poles together to make a rod for hanging a large tapestry. And he spends hours arranging silk flowers. He is always on the lookout for a place to display an item to its best advantage.

The end product of his shop meets Mr. Kourkoulas' expectations, but the "home" atmosphere is an elegant one with upscale accessories -- like a bouquet of velvet roses arranged in a brass bowl that sells for $198. Other items, from $3.50 for a bookmark to $1,200 for an Amish cabinet, include hand-crafted lamps, silk flowers, watercolor prints, dinnerware, glassware, linens and birdhouses.

"It's so easy to buy a beautiful lamp. . . . It jumps out at you. But the less expensive items are tough," Mr. Kourkoulas said. In an economy where shoppers are doing a lot of looking, he says, a tapestry retailing for $124 isn't usually at the top of someone's shopping needs.

"You like it because it fits a particular space; but it's not a necessity," Mr. Kourkoulas said.

That's why he and his buyer, Ms. Roberts, have been scanning trade shows in Atlanta, New York, Washington, Virginia, San Francisco and Pennsylvania for quality gift items in the lower price range.

So far, Mr. Kourkoulas says there is a 15 percent increase in sales and that Jennifer's is third or fourth in sales out of 10 stores in the gift category at the mall.

Still, he isn't counting his chickens in spite of the fact that he has been offered opportunities to open more Jennifer's stores at places like The Gallery in Harborplace, Towson Town Center and Tyson's Corner.

When the time is right, he hopes to expand into one of the other malls.

It appears that Mr. Kourkoulas is riding his current wave of success with a life jacket, because he takes nothing for granted.

"We have worked very hard," he said. He attributes the "team" effort of his eight employees and a go-with-the-flow business attitude as key reasons for any positive results.

"There were so many things that we wanted to sell that didn't belong in a liquor store and then a space opened up," he said. "Sometimes you just have to let it happen naturally."

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