When Rebecca Kolls’ friend Dennis Kilbane asked for her advice on attracting more customers to his Stillwater Farm Store, she gave it to him straight.
“I told Dennis he would have to clean it out and start over,” recalled Kolls. “It looked like an old hardware store gone bad.”
The “tired” merchandise included an overabundance of rain gauges, garden flags, spinners and cast-iron figurines. Items were stored in boxes stacked in front of the windows, making it hard for customers to see what the store had to offer.
Kilbane’s wife, Georgann Koelln, had run the business in the 1896 landmark building for years. When Koelln died of cancer in 2014, Kilbane took over, but was overwhelmed by the task.
Kolls started pitching in on weekends, helping to clean and clear out unwanted merchandise. “I was like a wrecking ball,” she said.
Kilbane was so impressed with her ideas and endless energy that he asked Kolls if she wanted to buy the business.
Kolls already had a demanding job as global consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture, and was wary of another commitment. (Her previous careers included WCCO-TV meteorologist and host of the TV show “Rebecca’s Garden.”) But her fiancé, Roy Ahern, persuaded her that it was a perfect fit for her talents.
By April 2015, Kolls was the owner of the Stillwater Farm Store, teaming up with a friend, artist and designer Peggy Pribil, to energize the interiors and put her own stamp on the merchandise mix.
They painted the walls barn red and the front door apple green, and scrubbed the 100-year-old tile floor. They tore out metal shelving and opened up views from the massive windows facing Main Street. They moved granite cemetery benches that had been forgotten in back to the front door to give shoppers a place to rest.
Local farmers who had been buying feed and supplies for years noticed the changes. “I’m sure they thought I was a crazy woman with dogs taking over the business,” said Kolls. “Now we’re friends.”
At the grand opening, Kolls’ two dogs greeted curious shoppers. “A regular customer walked in and said ‘You put in windows.’ I told her they were always here — you just couldn’t see them.”
Kolls’ reincarnated Stillwater Farm Store still sells agricultural supplies and animal feed in the back. But in the front, she displays nature-themed gifts — copper weather vanes, beeswax candles and gingham tea towels. She describe the mix of merchandise as “cool organic farmhouse, not crafty country.”
She also seeks out products from local entrepreneurs and artisans, such as jams from Minneapolis, birch-bark birdhouses crafted in northern Minnesota, and maple syrup from Luck, Wis. Some items are displayed on giant spools that once stored steel cables used to construct the new St. Croix Crossing bridge.
Bird lovers will find dozens of houses and feeders and custom seed mixes. The staff mixes 2,000 pounds of birdseed a week. “We’re trying a new recipe that’s supposed to keep squirrels away,” Kolls said. Someday she hopes to plant a green roof where goats can graze on weekends.
With her personal touch, the Stillwater Farm Store has become a destination for tourists and farmers alike. And Kolls is excited about what she calls her “empty-nester hobby.”
“It’s something I can grow old with,” she said.
Stillwater Farm Store, 401 S. Main St., 651-439-6143.