When you’re driving down Belt Highway in St. Joseph, Missouri, the last thing you expect to see along that busy thoroughfare is an antique shop. Belt is a congested traffic corridor lined with fast food restaurants (I’ve been told St. Joseph has more fast food restaurants per capita than any town in the world), big box stores, a shopping mall, and scores of the usual retail chains like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Dress Barn, and Michaels. Just past the intersection of Belt and Gene Field Road is an old Kmart and its adjacent neighbor, Dollar Tree. Now, this little shopping area has a crusty, worn look to it; a new girl in town on the lookout for fine gifts or lovely antiques would likely pass it over in favor of more promising shopping venues nearby. But, I’m not a new girl in town; I spend a lot of time in St. Joseph and have come to know parts of it well. What may just be the most beautiful shop in the city (and certainly my favorite shop there) shares a parking lot with that old Kmart: Kat & Co Antiques and Gifts.
Kat & Co’s location may not be obvious, but it’s perfectly convenient for those seeking a quick and soothing retreat from work-a-day lives lived along the Belt. I, myself, have whiled away many lunch hours there, and have rarely come away empty handed. I have particularly low resistance to what I call the “hall of mirrors,” a narrow passage in one corner of the shop with every style of vintage mirror you can imagine hanging on the walls. On my most recent visit I purchased one of those mirrors, but that is by no means my first. This latest mirror will be joining two others that had, once upon a time, hung in that same hall. I’ve purchased a vintage handbag there, old postcards, an old cookbook, and more. Naturally, you love shops that have yielded finds in the past. But Kat & Co has great aesthetic appeal, too. It’s a beautiful, light, and warm space that’s crammed full of old items. There are also some new things as well, but new or old, the merchandise is unique; A gift purchased at Kat & Co won’t be replicated elsewhere.
What a dream to work in such a place every day! Of course, I know myself well enough to realize that I simply couldn’t work in this kind of shop; I’d be spending my money faster than I could make it. But I was curious to learn about the owner, Jan Ruoff, who really is living the dream, so I sat down with her this week to find out if the dream matches reality. In a word, yes, it does.
Here’s a snapshot of our discussion in Q&A form.
Jennifer: The first thing I have to know is why ‘Kat & Co’? Who’s Kat?
Jan: That was the original owner’s name. There have actually been three owners. About seven years ago the original owner sold it, and that second owner ran it for a couple of years. I had a booth here at that time, and because I had been dreaming of owning a shop like this, when it came up for sale again, I took the chance and bought it. That was three years ago.
Jennifer: So, this had been a long-held dream?
Jan: Yes. I was in the carpet business for many years, and I had reached the point where I was tired of doing the same old thing. At one point my sister and I had a lot of stuff to sell, but what we had was really too nice to sell in a garage sale, so we decided to try getting a booth at the original Kat & Co. After that initial booth, my sister stopped doing it, but I stayed with it, and here I am.
Jennifer: You just knew this was for you.
Jan: Yes. When I was still selling carpet, I would come in this place and walk around to de-stress—
Jennifer: Yes! I can relate! I’ve done that, too.
Jan: —and I knew a lot of people from the carpet business, so I had a network in place.
Jennifer: Was it easy to translate your skills and experience from the carpet business to selling antiques?
Jan: Well, decorating has always come easily to me. When I sold carpet I worked with a lot of builders in town. If they had a spec house or a client, real estate agents would come in and I would help them pick out carpet and paint that was within their budget. Now one of my favorite things to do in the shop is help people find something special that will work in their space.
Jennifer: The shop is beautifully arranged.
Jan: Well, thank you. I have a lot of help. I have about 40 vendors, and they do their own decorating in their booths. Up front, here, I also have people that help me decorate.
Jennifer: Do you have any employees?
Jan: No, it’s just me and the vendors.
Jennifer: How do you attract vendors? And how does the whole vendor-owner relationship work?
Jan: I mostly attract vendors through word of mouth. Many of the vendors have booths in other venues in town, too. Everyone knows each other. I used to do more antique shows than I do now, but it gets harder and harder to move large pieces, so I don’t do as many of those any more! The way it works is that vendors pay me a monthly space rental fee plus a percentage of their sales. They also pay a small fee for credit card transactions. To start, there is a three-month commitment, but after that, the arrangement is month-to-month.
Jennifer: So, Jan, you are living the dream of many, having quit your job to run a place like this. Any scary parts?
Jan: Oh, yes. The scariest part was actually quitting my job. My family encouraged me, so that helped. I thought this was something that I could be good at, and my sister gave me a lot of feedback.
Jennifer: What’s the best part of running the shop?
Jan: Helping somebody find that special piece. The hunt is my favorite! I also have booths here. I get my merchandise from estate sales, garage sales, and friends who know I’m in the business and have something they think I might want to buy and sell.
Jennifer: Are there any downsides?
Jan: No, not that I can think of. I really love it.
Jennifer: What about the tough times? Every business goes through slow periods. What would your advice be to those who are considering going into this business?
Jan: Always prepare for the worst. Build up a nest egg so you can coast through the slow times. I’m always thinking of new ways in which to attract customers. For example, we have done chalk painting classes here. Oh, and we are getting ready for a big Christmas open house next weekend.
Jennifer: Tell me about the Christmas open house. What will that be like?
Jan: Everything will be decorated for Christmas. We’re also going to have a hot chocolate bar and a big jar of Hershey’s Kisses. The closest guess as to how many Kisses are in the jar will win a $50 gift certificate. It should be a lot of fun.
Jennifer: So, how do you resist the temptation to buy for yourself the things you are trying to sell?
Jan: I don’t! (laughing).
There was a lot of bustle in the shop when I visited. People were moving things around in preparation for some big pieces of furniture that were due to arrive. As for myself, well, I was on a mission. I was taking pictures for this post, of course, but I also wanted to find a large mirror for my living room mantle. As mentioned above, I found one in the hall of mirrors. But I found a couple of other items that simply would not be ignored: a vintage crystal tabletop nightlight and a small black needlepoint pillow. One of the hazards of writing this type of post is that you fall in love with the pictures you are taking, and before you know it, your wallet jumps out of your purse. The items look so pretty in the camera lens! I just can’t help myself! Take a little tour of the shop below and you’ll see what I mean.
So many beautiful things, too few places to put them! Shopping at Kat & Co is a treat I look forward to each time I visit, and Jan is a delight. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to meet her. Big thanks to her for making some time to chat with me and share a bit of her story.
Do make sure that you attend the Kat & Co Christmas open house on Saturday, November 11, in St. Joseph, Missouri. It’s sure to be fun, and you will uncover something fabulous there you won’t find anywhere else.
Until next time…