Playful Odyssey

Odyssey Gifts invites customers to get in touch with their inner child.
by : 

Jayne Denker

October 1, 2010
Playful Odyssey

Walking into Odyssey Gifts in Williamsport, Md., is like falling into an overstuffed treasure chest. Amber jewelry and other trinkets fill glass cabinets, elaborate puppets dangle from 10-foot-high ceilings, dragons and gargoyles peer between the spindles of the curved staircase in the 150-year-old house. Every corner has a hidden goody.

Odyssey, as imagined by owner Carolee Bartel, is not just a store. It’s a playground for fun, discovery, and—true to its name—adventure. Bartel wants customers to spend time in her shop, exploring and enjoying the good energy and “rambunctious” music. No meditative tunes here!

Customers are included when the Odyssey staff jokes around, and they joke around a lot! After all, this is the store that made a tradition of celebrating an employee’s birthday, “Ugly Frankie Day,” by playing Pin the Tail on the Monster and Hide the Rat (thankfully, a stuffed one), and cajoling customers into dancing the Chicken Dance in order to qualify for a discount on their purchases.

“We play with everybody,” Bartel says, using her favorite word to describe her store’s mission: play. Bartel has no problem teasing people. “Nope, you can’t leave yet. You have to spend more money than that. We have to pay some utility bills!”

And the customers take the jokes the way they’re intended—to foster more positive energy in the shop at all times, as well as to forge a relationship that transcends the conventional retailer-customer association. To Bartel, “customer” and “friend” are always synonymous. She lives the credo that the customer comes first, in every way. Bartel loves nothing more than to spend time chatting with her clientele, getting to know them, finding out their likes and interests, and helping them select just the right items.

All Odyssey-related elements, from the staff members to the items in stock, are chosen with care by Bartel herself. Always aware that “reputation is everything,” she vastly prefers shopping at trade shows, purchasing items directly from an artist, designer, or manufacturer, and selecting items from vendors she knows well over being told “this is what you need” by a sales rep who doesn’t know her or the nature of her shop at all.

“Customers trust me,” she says. “I’m responsible for selling the things that people bring into their homes; the products are an extension of me and of the store, so I take it all very seriously. I’m a sales rep’s worst nightmare!” she laughs.

“I want to make sure there are no bad energies attached to products, so if I can touch an item at a trade show, that’s the best way to select them. But if I can’t check out an item in person, ordering directly is the next best thing. It’s more personal and enlightening. I get to learn how the item came to be created, and I also get to pick up the seller’s excitement about the item.”

Bartel’s attention to detail extends to her staff. She requires that her employees—two at the moment, one full time and one part time—be as knowledgeable and as dedicated as she is … and keep their cell phones off the sales floor. “I hate being out shopping, and there’s a store employee staring at her phone instead of waiting on customers,” Bartel says. “My employees have to engage the customer, listen to the customer, and truly interact.”

Dedication, dedication, dedication

All of Bartel’s attention to detail stems from the fact that she’s completely dedicated to her business. It’s hard to tell where the business ends and she begins, and Bartel prefers it that way. “The store is geared toward my personality and what I like. That’s why it’s heavy on dragons and gargoyles.”

Alongside the dragons and gargoyles, Odyssey is packed with decorative items such as statuary, tapestries, salt lamps, windchimes, pewter figurines, witch balls, suncatchers, and crystals, as well as candles, chalices, wax seals, cards from Tree Free Greetings, and a large stock of silver, pewter, and amber jewelry. If it’s pretty, fun, interesting, or luxurious (and sparkly), it’s on the shelves at Odyssey.

Odyssey is not aligned with any particular belief system, although Bartel says the store’s atmosphere and stock reflect a soft spot for earth-based religions, Bartel makes sure that people of all faiths are welcomed equally. “There’s no judgment here, and customers know that. We fill in the blanks for people on spiritual paths, but we don’t teach or preach. If they know it, they don’t need to hear it from us, and if they don’t know it, it’s not for us to teach them.”

While many of Odyssey’s items are meant to appeal to people of any belief system (or no belief system at all), Bartel stocks many Pagan essentials: gemstones, Tarot decks, scrying mirrors, sage, mortars and pestles, cauldrons, sea salt, charcoal tablets, ink, rune sets, reiki healing stones, smudge feathers, dripless candles for candle magic, velvet cloaks, tapestries, altar cloths, and scarves, along with wands, athames, and pendulums made by local artists. Bartel is especially proud of the high-quality oils and a line of incense specially blended for the shop.

Bartel keeps some books in the store, although not many, and if she doesn’t happen to have something that a Pagan needs, like specific herbs, she’ll send her to another New Age shop for those items. (“I don’t worry about competition. There’s enough for everyone,” she says.)

Breaking the rules

If Bartel’s choice of products and method of doing business break the rules for what a typical New Age store is supposed to be like … well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bartel seems to live to break the standard retail rules.

Technically, she admits, she never should have succeeded in the retail industry at all. As a former corporate marketing professional, in the mid-1990s she found out her entire division had been laid off while she was home recovering from back surgery. Bartel used her sudden freedom to change careers simply because she recognized her favorite part of any job was interacting with people—and because she heard the universe whispering to do something different with her life.

So armed with “a hundred dollars and a handful of jewelry,” Bartel worked trade shows and flea markets in her former home state of Florida, then started branching out up the East Coast. (In a bit of serendipity, she met her husband, John, at a trade show in Gettysburg, Pa.) Through sheer perseverance, she worked her way up to mall shows and small retail spaces, until she purchased her current location, a three-story house in Williamsport’s historic town center.

She never did anything by the book the entire time, she says. “I’ve never had a business plan. Never took classes on how to run a retail establishment. And I never listened to people who told me I should give it up because I wasn’t making money. If I had done any of those things, I never would have made it this far.” Instead, she says, she’s always followed her instincts. “I never had any doubts that this was what I was going to do. I never considered doing anything else.” And with approximately $125,000 in annual gross sales, so far it’s been working out just fine.

Last of the buggy-whip salespeople

One thing Bartel doesn’t avail herself of is modern technology. “I’m going to be the last one selling buggy whips,” she says.

She’s not interested in offering online shopping through the Odyssey website (www.odysseygifts.net). Bartel says she’d rather her customers come into the store for a face-to-face visit. “This is a place of solace, a toy store. I want to see people come in and play”—there’s that word again— “and have that ‘zing’ when they find the perfect item.”

Plus, Bartel has no back stock. What she has in stock is all on the sales floor and is likely to change from day to day, week to week, shipment to shipment. “My regulars know that if they see something they like, they have to grab it because the next time they come in, it’ll be gone,” she says. And she doesn’t trust drop-shipping, because she can’t check for negative energies nor can she control how well something is packed for shipment.

Her aversion to high-tech and high speed also is evidenced by her antique cash register, handwritten receipts (“it gives me more time to play with the customers”), and an inventory method she describes as “chicken sticks on a notepad.” She uses e-mail, but sparingly, and she sends out messages to her mailing list of 1,200 subscribers only occasionally to announce special events, such as charity concerts to benefit the Humane Society in the store’s backyard or visits from artist Jessica Galbreth.

When she thinks of it (“I’m on Pagan Standard Time—that means my ‘day’ might be a week,” she jokes), she’ll send out an issue of her e-newsletter, “Odyssey Oracle,” detailing shop news and customer milestones. Bartel has no sales to advertise; if she is so inclined, she may offer a discount on something a customer is contemplating buying. She has a presence on Facebook but is still figuring out how to post on the Odyssey Gifts page.

Bartel’s business methods might seem exceedingly relaxed, but they work for her, although she’ll be the first to caution they likely wouldn’t work for anyone else. This is her journey, and she sees her path clearly. “I am the store; the store is me,” Bartel says. “It’s my heart, my soul.”

Jayne Denker is an editor-at-large for New Age Retailer. She lives in a small village in western New York with her husband and son. Visit her at www.dragon-droppings.com or her blog, http://dragondroppings.wordpress.com.