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Oh! BABIES

(ran NTP edition)

The woman who owns the three Calico Cat stores in Hillsborough County is the first to admit she doesn't sell anything that anyone actually needs.

"We carry products that make you feel good. We certainly don't have necessities," said owner Susan Clark. "It's food for the soul. Things that welcome you home."

Lately, lots of her customers have disagreed with that statement. Calico Cat sells Beanie Babies, the ubiquitous toys that lots of people consider a necessity.

And Clark decided to put a twist on the whole Beanie Baby buying frenzy. Since the beginning of October, those who want to buy the $5 creatures at any Calico Cat store (there's a Carrollwood, Temple Terrace and Brandon location) must show up on a Thursday and donate one can of food per Beanie Baby purchased, with a six-Beanie Baby limit.

The deal-a-meal has produced more than 30 barrels of canned food for Metropolitan Ministries, a Tampa charity, and more cans will be collected this month. Clark plans to continue the donation situation through November.

Clark was a client of Ty Toy, the company that makes Beanie Babies, long before the craze took hold. For years, she ordered Ty plush toys to sell at Easter and Christmas.

"I started buying the Beanie Babies because they were cute. Back then, people purchased them but they didn't fly out the door and people didn't fight over them," Clark said. "You could walk in and get them last Christmas; now Ty can't keep up with the demand."

In fact, Ty didn't come through with a shipment for the fourth Thursday in October, so the store had to cancel that day's Beanie Baby sell-off.

No matter. One Beanie Babyless day didn't put a dent in Calico Cat's sales. The independent retailer celebrated its 25th anniversary in October and doesn't rely on the sale of hand-held creatures such as Scoop the pelican, Echo the dolphin and Ziggy the zebra.

Calico Cat's best seller is the Department 56 brand of collectible Christmas villages. The Beanie Babies have nothing on Department 56's faux North Pole.

In addition to a variety of Christmas keepsakes and the beloved Beanie Babies, Calico Cat sells items such as music boxes, wreathes, artwork, personal care products, candles, silk flowers, decorative pillows and wind chimes.

Clark described her business as selling "upscale gifts and home accessories," but then took back those words. "Perhaps upscale isn't the right term, because we have something for everyone in here."

Friendly endeavor

Clark is quick to soothe any elitist undertones her stores may project. After all, when you sell items no one really needs, the last thing you want to do is alienate any potential customers.

But Clark was right. It's not a place for everyone. Calico Cat isn't a bargain store or a cheesy souvenir shop. Nor is it a snobby interior design outfit or a locked-up-in-glass-case-collectibles place.

It's the kind of store that uses a puffy heart to dot the "i" in its logo.

Clark started the business with her friend, Jan Chambers, a high school classmate from Winter Park. By 1972, both women had moved to Tampa, had two small children each and had developed an interest in opening a consignment crafts store. Clark named the store after a character in a poem that her mother had read to her when she was a child.

At the time, both women lived in Temple Terrace (Clark has since moved to south Tampa) so that's where they opened their store. That same Temple Terrace location, now much bigger but still with creaky floorboards, is still in operation.

"It was a creative outlet and a learning experience," Chambers said. "It was nice to have the time with the kids and time for ourselves. I miss it a lot."

A few years into the endeavor, Clark bought Chamber's interest. She opened her second store, in Carrollwood, in 1983.

"Carrollwood was just very busy. There was so much traffic, there were new homes and people were moving out here," Clark said. "We were immediately successful out here. People just found us."

Clark opened her third store, two years after her second, in Brandon for the same reasons she wanted to be in Carrollwood.

It will be her last.

"I can't handle any more," she said. "I'd have to bring in a staff of middle management if I decided to expand. I want each store to retain their friendliness and personality. If we got bigger, it would have to be more of a canned approach."

Calico Cat is a bit of an anomaly. It hasn't had to struggle like so many other independent retailers. In an era of category killers, mega malls and deep discounters, it's difficult for the little guys and gals to survive.

"I don't ever worry about what another store is doing," Clark said. "I think that if we do what we do, the very best that we can do it, it's going to take care of itself."

Like many other independent retailers, Clark has relied on heavy-duty customer service. She mails out a chatty newsletter once a month, fills her stores with the scents of powerful potpourri and plays Christmas carols during the holidays.

Clark encourages her employees to treat shoppers as house guests and offers those customers a loyalty reward program and a store credit card.

"People like to come in. It makes them feel good," Clark said. "I think the word spreads when you treat people right."

Mum's the word

On a recent Beanie Baby Thursday, Dorothy Galuska of Carrollwood was in line long before the store opened, a plastic grocery bag filled with cans near her feet. Her mission: to add more Beanie Babies to her 9-year-old grandson's collection of 15.

Lauri Broyles already owned more than 40 Beanie Babies and was hoping to get some more for herself and her niece. She showed up at 8:15 a.m. to get in the Beanie Baby line that wrapped around the sidewalk of the Shoppes of Carrollwood.

"I like talking to people in line and learning new places to buy more Beanie Babies," Broyles said.

When Broyles started to reveal a new Beanie Baby buying spot in Lutz, the women standing near her discouraged the shopper from giving away her secret.

This is not the first time one of Clark's store items created a consumer demand. Back in the 1970s, Calico Cat sold an action figure from the movie E.T.

"We sold tons of those dolls," Clark said. "We couldn't get enough E.T. dolls, but it certainly was not like the Beanie Baby phenomenon."

With the Beanie Baby business, the Carrollwood store gets about 100 calls a day. "What can you say? People get a little exacerbated when they don't get what they want," said Julie Jaunese, manager of the Carrollwood shop.

About 200 people showed up on the last Thursday in October. It didn't take long for one of the toys to sell out. Just minutes after the store opened an employee announced: "Doodles is gone."

Word that Doodles the rooster wasn't available spread throughout the line and customers quickly decided on an alternate Beanie Baby.

Ten minutes later a male customer yelled out, "Spooky's gone!"

Again, buyers scrambled for a new choice.

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