Like many folks in her business, Roxana (Roxy) Freese maintains that her iconic collection of four Bibelot stores is more than a string of gift shops. The only trouble is, she has difficulty coming up with a more acceptable definition.

Vendor of creative objects? Purveyor of imaginative trinkets? Retailer of intriguing art items? They all could work.

But Freese's head buyer, Peggy Merrill, might have come up with the best one: She calls Bibelot "the wonderful temptations store."

Bingo! Since she opened her first store in 1966 on Como Avenue in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood, Freese has been stocking an eclectic array of gifts, jewelry and apparel, most of them uncommon items that you'd rarely find at your friendly neighborhood SuperTarget.

There are embossed Celtic dishes and Finland's Iittala glassware, famous for its artistic beauty. And earrings made from molds of flowers, or necklace pendants fashioned from salvaged butterfly wings encased in glass.

Then there are the even-more-whimsical offerings that have made Bibelot famous hereabouts. We're talking hummingbird feeders made from recycled glass, birdhouses that look like house trailers and a wind-up salt shaker that skitters across the table when you ask someone to pass it.

Plus silicone containers that confine the messes that can occur when you're poaching eggs. Or a stamper that presses the words "I [Heart] You" onto your toast, and a coffee cup embossed with the directive to "Call Your Mother." Oh, and a small library of books with titles such as "101 Ways to Say Thank You" and "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart."

"Diversity is our specialty," said Freese, who is 75-going-on-55, a slender, diminutive lady who walks gingerly, even a bit haltingly, the result of arthritic knees that need surgical attention if she could only find the time. But a collection of stores that also includes locations in northeast Minneapolis, the Linden Hills neighborhood of south Minneapolis and on St. Paul's Grand Avenue tend to limit one's spare time.

Annual sales that approach $10 million -- Freese shudders to discuss such matters, but allows as how her gross runs between $8 million and $10 million -- aren't the only indication of her success.

There also are the other retailers whom Merrill has seen paying close attention to what was catching Freese's eye at trade shows. And more than one of the company's sales reps has been asked, "What's Bibelot buying?" Then there was the call from Target Stores a few years back saying it was sending some of its buyers to one of the Bibelots for a look at her merchandise.

Follow the formula

What with her age and those pesky knees, Freese now leaves the inventory purchases to nine buyers. But she also expects those buyers to follow her longtime formula for keeping up on consumer interests by spending parts of three or more days a month on the shop floor attending to customers.

Asked what she adds to the mix nowadays, she replied: "Encouragement." But her admirers beg to differ.

Merrill, for example, talked of Freese having created "a warm, caring environment where we're allowed to grow and express our creativity."

And Rick Haase, one of several former Bibelot employees who have started their own retail businesses, calls Freese "an amazing person ... with an intuitive sense about what's timely and a deep understanding of her customers.

"She taught me so much; she's one of the most influential people in my life," said Haase, who worked 10 years as a Bibelot buyer and merchandiser before starting the Patina retail chain, a vendor of what he calls "accessories for a good life."

Other retailers offer similarly kind words: "Roxy's graciousness extends to the way she does business," said Cynthia Gerdes, founder of the Creative Kidstuff chain. "It's exciting and comforting to know that someone can conduct a successful business in today's cutthroat climate and still hold on to her values."

Evidence of those values can be found at any of her stores, where precious shelf space is devoted to the books, sculptures and other items sold to raise funds by nonprofits. The sales revenue is passed directly to these groups, including Free Arts Minnesota, which uses art to help children heal from violent experiences, and Open Arms of Minnesota, which delivers meals to people with chronic illnesses.

Each March, Bibelot offers 20 percent discounts to customers who donate food and cash to Minnesota Foodshare.

The stores also stock an array of inventive "green" products, including such items as classy handbags made from pop-can tabs, coin purses fashioned from recycled cassette tapes, jewelry crafted from recycled magazines and picture frames studded with recycled bicycle chains.

A fine arts major

The Bibelot concept grew out of Freese's college background as a fine arts major, a focus that took her to many art galleries. But it wasn't just the art that attracted her.

"I just loved those little gift shops" attached to galleries, she said. And so, with $10,000 in savings and a bank loan cosigned by her father, she launched Bibelot even as she was laboring as a single mother of three young children.

Freese had no training in retail, "and the money part was not my strong suit," she said. "So one of the first things I did was find an accountant."

She opened the Grand Avenue store in 1987 and since then has expanded three times to a total of 8,000 square feet that make it the company's largest revenue-producer. The third store opened in Linden Hills in 1995 and in 2002 -- at the age of 70 -- she opened the northeast Minneapolis shop.

Freese has a simple explanation for the latest decision to expand: "It was on a lovely corner in a thriving neighborhood with a lot of energy," she said.

Translation: She couldn't resist the opportunity, never mind her age.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com