Need a Model A steering wheel? Aromatherapy for your next department confab? One-stop shopping for a new accordion and a statement necklace? We thought not. But these Twin Cities extreme niche businesses are doing just fine, thank you, in these brutal economic times by giving customers something they can't get anywhere else, and anticipating what satisfies and delights them.
That might be all that Castle Accordion/Jewelry, Little Dearborn Auto Parts and AromaSys Inc. have in common.
"Jewelry is a luxury item, and luxury items are down," said Randy McPeck, owner of the world's only accordion and jewelry store housed in a former White Castle. "But people aren't giving up music."
For AromaSys' Eileen Kenney, though, "the luxury experience itself is never going to go away because it never has. People in all economic classes appreciate the aesthetics of a meal or a place. In recent years, we've seen a move in what people value, away from 'stuff' to experiences."
Little Dearborn, on the other hand, is all about "stuff" -- parts for antique Fords -- although manager Terry Kashmark uses different nouns. "They're toys, pure and simple," he said. "You see people with antique autos in the garage while their new $40,000 car sits in the driveway. They're just their babies, and everybody's got to take care of their baby."
For these three entrepreneurs, the businesses are their babies. Get a closer look at the people behind these quirky enterprises on E8:
Co-founder, with husband Mark Peltier, of Lake Elmo-based AromaSys Inc., which creates aroma systems that bring outdoor scents into interior spaces.
Among their clients: L'Auberge du Lac Casino in Lake Charles, La.; Trump Plaza in New York, and the Bellagio and several other hotels in Las Vegas.
How the duties are divvied up: "Mark invented the technology, so he's the hardware guy. I create the scents, so I'm the software side."
Her approach: "I pair aromas with the design of the space. Whatever materials, layout, colors, textures are there provide a statement of what they want people to feel. So I look at what that space is telling me, as well as the architecture and the aesthetics of the people who will be visiting that space."
For example: "Ritz-Carltons, with their old-money standard luxury, you would put in more of the woodland blends, cedar and oak or dark cherries. Also, they might have a beautiful Italian tapestry, so I can bring in herbal notes. If there's slate blue backdrop in there, bring in some lavender."
Oddest requests: "They're mostly from museums. For an exhibit of some Old Master, they want an old, musty European wine-cellar scent. In the mid-'90s when 'Jurassic Park' was big, we got one for dinosaur breath, and we're like, what does dinosaur breath smell like?"
Halloween at the lab: "We have 'Mad Scientist' parties. We found an old lab that had scientists' white smocks for sale, and we also bought black-rimmed glasses frames. You put your pens and pencils in your lab-coat pocket and voila, you're a mad scientist."
Manager of Little Dearborn Auto Parts in Minneapolis, a 35,000-square-foot shop on University Av. SE. filled with parts for Fords made mainly from 1928 to about 1953. Kashmark works with owner Roger Carlson, shipping manager Dave Ulmer and eBay specialist Gary Anderson.
How the business was built: "The former owner [Pete Peterson, who died in 1995] used to drive all around the country to get the parts. Back in the '30s, '40s and '50s, once you bought a Ford part, you couldn't return it. So he'd leave Monday morning in a pickup or large enclosed van and buy parts. He'd get as far as he could to turn around and get back to Minneapolis by Friday afternoon."
How the business has changed: "Surprisingly, it really hasn't. The biggest change is that in the '70s and '80s, you could find original parts. Now it's more reproduction to original specs. For example, for a Model A from 1929 to '31, you can find virtually all the parts to build a car brand new."
The shop's reach: "We have customers call from the East Coast and West Coast who probably have a dealership within 50 or 100 miles, but they still order from us. We've sent parts to customers in Turkey, India, New Zealand, the United Kingdom. We have one customer from Sweden who comes in twice a year. So I guess you could say this place is like a mecca for some guys."
The physical space: "The building's 100-and-something years old. Because of that and the old car parts, it has a certain aroma. And we have one lady who comes in and we'll say 'Can I help you?' and she'll say 'No, I just came in for the aroma.' She does that once a year, spends 5, 10 minutes wandering around and then smiles and says, 'See you next year.'"
The contemporary touch: "Gary Anderson put a 1914 license plate from Wisconsin on eBay, with a reserve bid of $100. It ended up going for $1,300, and we said, 'Wow, how many of these things did we give up for a couple of dollars?'"
Operates Castle Accordion/Jewelry in a converted White Castle at 3252 Lyndale Av. S. in Minneapolis. Before he moved in, the building housed an all-female construction company called Calamity Jane's.
Genesis of an odd coupling: "I've made gold jewelry since 1974. About 1997, I started learning accordion repair from Oscar Lindberg. He was a cantankerous old guy. You couldn't stay in the same room with him while he looked at an accordion. Turned out to be, what's the word, serendipitous, 'cause now, absolutely, I'd be out of business if it wasn't for the accordion part."
About that building: "I can't change anything because it's in the historical registry. I even had to put the [accordion] sign away from the building."
Any confused customers? "Most people walk up with kind of a dumb look, then walk away. But some ring the bell looking for sliders. We used to have a sign in the window, 'No sliders today.' When the Calamity Jane folks were working late at night, they'd get a lot of people wanting sliders."
The two businesses' similarities: "There's actually a lot of crossover, detail work and knowing how to make parts. You just can't call up an accordion store to order parts -- there's not even a good database. So most of the parts, you have to make. "
Oddest request: Surprisingly, it is not accordion-related. "I made gold cowboy-boot tips for a guy in the shape of a sheriff's badge."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643