The route Traci Nelson recommends takes you past Elko Speedway, past a country bar lit up by neon, and down a dark rural highway. Then it's a left onto a jarringly bumpy, dusty gravel road before parking on grass in what feels like a farmyard.

Once there you've reached what Nelson calls "a pole barn -- but not like any pole barn you've ever seen."

Inside this place, in the hinterlands of New Market Township, you'll find a boutique full of French imports.

Nor is it the only place of its type in the area. Postcards on a table show there's cross-marketing going on with others nurturing similar ambitions in a part of the south metro whose affluence has risen.

Crowned Cottage, for instance, in the town of Elko New Market, features its own Belle Vache line of handbags and accessories as well as "European-inspired architectural furnishings," Claus Porto luxury soaps and Seda France candles.

The Old Hotel Market, also in town, features roughly 20 crystal chandeliers and a series of themed rooms upstairs that were once the rooms for guests of a hotel built in 1897. The themes range from country cabin to a European room with fireplace and chaise lounge.

Jeanne Mahoney O'Neill's Old Hotel Market, which starts its sixth year in January, is the veteran of the three; the others have arrived within the past couple of years.

"I welcome them," O'Neill said. "I didn't seem them as competition at all but rather stores that would give people more reason to justify driving the distance, to see three shops versus one -- a lot of people think we're in Iowa! Several months ago we finally got together and decided to jointly market ourselves to save money on ads.

"And we're all very different -- all these shops are. That's what's great about them."

It's an offshoot of the town's growth, said Brian Hong, who organized a Chamber of Commerce in Elko New Market a little over a year ago and, with his marketing expertise, has been promoting other businesses in town as well as himself.

"This was a very sleepy town of a few hundred people that suddenly grew to 4,000 in the housing boom," he said. "We're trying to really stress to folks who live here that there are a lot more shopping options here than they may have realized. At Halloween, for instance, we had a party and probably 300 kids and their parents turned up, and Traci sponsored a game, and she met the parents, and almost every parent who came through had no idea she was there. So it really helped her, and at the same time, these three upscale businesses can bring people into town."

Taught French in Northfield

Traci Nelson, a former president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French, taught French at Northfield for eight years; then, when her daughter was born, she "worked one more year and then couldn't do it full time."

"I wanted to do something different. I'd kept in contact with a French woman who was a high school student here when I was teaching, and she said, 'You love to shop and love everything French. Why not bring some amazing stuff to the States?' I said, 'Sure.' My husband and I had been looking for places in the country, and this barn [across the highway from the development in which she lives] filled both of our needs. It's cozy, it gives him a man cave in part of the space, and I'm at liberty to do what I want."

Her friends and fellow Francophiles, notably teachers of French from around the state, were early customers. As time went on, "Neighbors would trickle in, asking, 'What is this place?' People find it fun to see things you don't see everywhere else. My friend in France finds me things that I know no one else in this region has, or even the country. People have fallen in love with a particular olive oil. Whatever it is, it's quality products, it's not made in China, it lasts and is beautiful."

She sells everything from textiles to stationery to soaps to food items, many of them screaming FRANCE, with Eiffel Towers and sidewalk tables.

None of the three shops is quite to the point of being open steadily. They open up on a handful of days a month or by appointment. Coquette is open this week on Thursday through Saturday, including Guys' Night on Thursday evening, and then again on the same days during the first week of January.

"People who are looking for something special have found us. I've had people from Minnetonka, Excelsior, all over, who somehow have heard about us," Nelson said. "A lot of southern metro people, Eagan, Prior Lake, Lakeville, Elko New Market, even Faribault and Northfield. Girlfriends come together to check it out."

Not everyone who arrives these days is necessarily a Francophile. Sherri Taggart, for instance, is a neighbor who hasn't been to France but stops by to shop and just enjoys "finding something unique."

Martha Johnson, of nearby Credit River Township, was Nelson's very first customer at Coquette when it opened two years ago. She calls it "my nearest retail therapy."

Johnson said she isn't a Francophile as much as someone who "appreciates everything about what Traci has here -- the artwork, the textiles, all of it -- I can always find a gift here."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285