OBERLIN — For many in this northwest Kansas town, The Dresser is more than just a boutique. It’s an example of what can happen when people come together for a common goal.
In the early 1990s, a group of 65 residents pledged financial investment for a start-up women’s clothing store. The women recognized a need for a quality clothing store in the rural community, which now has a population of approximately 1,700.
“I think the main thing I wanted to emphasize is the team effort that it’s been. Otherwise, it would have never worked,” said Karen Thompson, one of the original investors. “Everybody has bought into it emotionally too.”
Located at 152 S. Penn, The Dresser was established in 1993. It currently has approximately 65 investors, though the number at times has been closer to 100, said Amanda Grafel, who has managed the business for the last 17 years.
She is the only paid employee, but investors are quick to help as needed.
“I always call it my perfect job,” Grafel said. “I have a big list of ladies that volunteer their time, so I don’t miss out on any of the kids’ activities. … I’m pretty spoiled.”
The boutique offers an array of women’s clothing, shoes and accessories, as well as gift items and some makeup. It also provides gift wrapping if desired, and occasionally hosts special events such as fashion shows.
The community’s long-standing support has undoubtedly been the cause of the store’s longevity, Grafel said, noting the store wouldn’t have been financially feasible without its many investors.
“I think this is the only way we’ve stayed in business for almost 25 years in a day and age when everybody shops the Internet,” she said. “It’s hard to make a business, especially a clothing business, go.”
While many customers are long-time residents who have been shopping there for years, younger generations also are beginning to frequent the boutique, Grafel said. The store strives to offer a wide variety of items to please all ages of customers, and is finishing a good business year in 2017.
“I think when I first started working here 17 years ago, it was a lot of older customers and not a lot of the 20, 30 year olds. And it’s great that we are getting more of those that are shopping here and not just The Buckle,” Grafel said. “We’re getting some younger customers over time and younger investors, too. Which is good, because that’s what it’s going to take to keep us here.”
The boutique also captures regional traffic, with shoppers from several nearby Kansas and Nebraska communities often stopping by.
The store operates under a board of directors due to the large number of investors. For investors though, the endeavor has never been about the money, Thompson said, noting investment is needed just to keep the store operational.
The investors have received many inquiries from other small towns hoping to implement a similar business model. They also have heard about a few similar boutiques in the region, she said, but aren’t sure how many still are open.
Community investment was reaffirmed just a few years ago, when the store’s leased storefront was placed on the market. There weren’t any other spaces available that would meet the store’s needs, so investors were forced to decide whether to close shop or purchase the building.
The group easily decided to invest additional dollars to buy the property and keep the doors open, she said. Investors and volunteers also rallied to renovate the space after it had been purchased.
“We’re very proud of it. It’s pretty unique,” Thompson said. “I think that it’s been a wonderful experience in what a group of women can do when they put their mind to it.”