'Oasis' dries up
When Cindy and Jim VanWinkle bought Life's Little Oasis in 1998, they had almost no retail experience.
"We just have bungled our way through owning a business," Cindy VanWinkle said. "We've made many mistakes along the way, but it's a learning process."
The trinket and gift store officially opened Dec. 26, 1998. Then, the store was located in a small area on the main floor of Pottery Place Historic Center.
In the past 15 years, the store moved from that Old West Main Street location to two storefronts on Bush Street. Its inventory also expanded from simply birdhouses and wind chimes to an eclectic mix of home décor, toys, collectables and accessories.
"It was always hard to pin down who we were," VanWinkle said of trying to characterize exactly what her store sells.
Now, with the VanWinkles expecting their first grandchild in August, Cindy VanWinkle decided that it's time to close up shop. Life's Little Oasis' last day will be Aug. 31.
"Retail has run its course," VanWinkle said.
VanWinkle said she had been thinking about closing for some time. Both she and her husband have other full-time jobs. Jim works as a robotic engineer for Crenlo in Rochester. Cindy is employed by REM and works with individuals with developmental disabilities.
Last July, she accepted a promotion at that job and took on "a lot more responsibility," she said. "I took that job with the understanding that I would be closing."
In addition, VanWinkle said that the business has been struggling for some time.
"The business has just been bleeding red ink," she said.
VanWinkle said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she has seen a change in the number of customers coming into her store and the way people shop. The recent recession has only made it worse, she added.
"It's just going to take such a long time to bounce back," VanWinkle said.
This past February, the VanWinkles closed half of the store's retail space, going from two downtown storefronts to just one.
Dawn Bennett, president of Red Wing Downtown Main Street, said that Life's Little Oasis' closing will have an impact on the downtown community. She said the VanWinkles' store carried merchandise that appealed to younger consumers, especially high school students.
"They were really comfortable going into the store," Bennett said.
Now, Bennett said, she is encouraging those consumers to continue shopping local and discover other downtown shops.
"I really hope that people don't see this as a reason you shouldn't go downtown, but as a way to learn about other merchants down here and what's available," she said.
Five part-time employees will be affected by the closing, VanWinkle said, but most have been able to find other work.
In addition to those employees and her regular customers, VanWinkle said she will miss the other downtown merchants.
"Red Wing has really close-knit merchants who really care about each other and want people to succeed," VanWinkle said.
VanWinkle served on many boards for DTMS in the past and she said she will continue to work with the business organization. As for what she will do with her free weekends from now on, she said she's looking forward to spending more time at her cabin in northern Minnesota and spoiling her new grandson "beyond belief."
"I'm glad I experienced (owning a store)," VanWinkle said. "But I want to be on the other side of the counter from now on."