Parkville stroll reveals a character of commerce worth keeping

10/09/2013 6:52 AM

05/16/2014 3:59 PM

A statue of Mark Twain, the product and great celebrator of Missouri’s small towns, sits watching over the heart of Parkville. He lounges just under Parkville Mini Golf across from the single stop sign that governs the downtown intersection at First and Main streets. The corners of his mouth are turned up in a smile as if he is sharing a secret with everyone heading from Missouri 9 into the town north of Kansas City.

“If you have a day off and just want to look around, this place is perfect. There’s just a nice feel here,” says Karen Wollner, 63.

She’s talking about the city, but also Northland Exposure, an artists gallery where she is working a four-hour shift. Wollner is one of 42 members of the gallery cooperative, which showcases pieces from artists across the greater Kansas City area.

Developing ways to bring in both business owners and shoppers has been the topic of conversation in Parkville for the past several months. City officials met with residents and business owners at three meetings in September to talk about shaping a potential downtown master plan.

“Everybody in that room understands that the downtown can’t just stay the way it is or it will go away,” says Deborah Butcher, the chairwoman of the Main Street Parkville Association. “We need to have an organized effort to compete.”

This is Parkville’s charm and challenge: How do you translate cute into commerce?

“I’m so glad you came up from Main Street,” says John Kuhns from his corner office inside the H.M.S. Beagle. His shop dog, Polly, an 18-month-old blue heeler, chirps her agreement.

Kuhns has the beard of Santa Claus but a smile that suggests he has made the naughty list more than once. He’s devoting his lunch hour to answering scientific questions posted to the science store’s page on Facebook. The 65-year-old chemist has spent the better part of a decade attempting to re-create the feeling he got as a boy by walking into Griffin’s Apothecary on Petticoat Lane in Kansas City.

“I’m of the firm belief that science education in our country sucks bilgewater,” says Kuhns, glancing at a large, custom periodic chart in his office. “We have to get kids and parents interested in science.”

Kuhns has been doing his part. He’s the treasurer of Make: KC and helped organize the first local Maker Faire during Parkville Days in 2010.

Now in its ninth year, the science shop has grown into a geek lair for rock hounds, stargazers (the shop holds star parties on the last Friday of the month) and dinosaur enthusiasts. It helps that Kuhns’ business is one of the few offline local shops to have microscopes, rocket engines and telescopes, as well as gleaming fossils, minerals and rocks. At the H.M.S. Beagle, named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, there’s an actual rocket scientist working the register.

The center of the store is a square glass counter with 650 chemicals, each of which is mixed by Kuhns’ hands, and all of the glassware needed for a home laboratory. Kuhns is currently working on an Heirloom Chemistry Set — a wooden crate filled with vintage chemistry manuals and 64 chemicals — that he hopes to get funded on Kickstarter. He doesn’t draw a salary and acknowledges the Beagle has eaten away the retirement savings he built over a several-decade career designing aquarium medicines.

“The tenor of the town needs to change,” says Kuhns, who estimates that 65 percent of his customers live in Johnson County. “We don’t just need quaint. We need interesting. People won’t just drive here for quaint.”

Polly chirps again, and Kuhns takes her outside. He greets a woman and her teenage daughter on the sidewalk.

“‘Your natural selection for science,’” says the girl, reading the shop’s slogan off a sign. “That’s funny.”

The two promise to return after picking up some yarn at Florilegium, the fabric and antiquities store a few doors down. Kuhns waves goodbye and walks Polly over to a stretch of grass next to a trailer that holds a frozen scene from Santa’s workshop used in past Christmas on the River celebrations.

The interior of Florilegium feels like the inside of a craft drawer. There are ribbons and buttons, and it’s easy to forget exactly what you’re looking for. Owner Gretchen Nutt, who has run the business with her husband, Fred, for the past nine years, is more than happy to guide you in the right direction.

“People come to me to get specific ideas. And that’s fine with me, because I’ve got plenty of ideas,” says Nutt.

The shop is the physical manifestation of two decades spent picking her way through handcraft antiques in the Madison, Wis., area. The walls are lined with crazy quilts (patchwork creations that don’t necessarily have repeating patterns). A series of standing cases, each with a curated tableau celebrating Victorian-era embroidery or antiques, divides the store in half. On the right half of the store, one entire wall is covered in hand-dyed yarn.

“Perfection is a word that I don’t like,” says Nutt. “This isn’t about being perfect. It’s about making something that is yours.”

For those not ready to dye fabric or pick up a needle, there’s the Parkville Antique Mall More on the south side of the shopping center on English Landing Drive. The country and cowboy apparel that dominated displays a decade ago has swung back toward vintage jewelry, toys and furniture.

A train whistles as it rolls on the tracks downtown. This happens 52 times a day. The server clearing the patio outside Pancho’s Villa on Main Street doesn’t even look up as she walks between the stationary red and yellow cabooses that flank the restaurant.

The foot and car traffic picks up on Main Street, where the Main Street Parkville Association has placed and maintains half barrels of primary-colored flowers. Bentley Guitar Studios hangs guitars like fine art, Cool Vintage Watches is true to its name, and tour buses sometimes stop at the Peddlers Wagon Quilt and Gift Shop, where patchwork quilts adorn everything from puzzles to handbags. Your smoking choice also comes in either smokeless (Electric Cigarette Den) or smoke-filled (Oliver’s Fine Cigars).

“We have so many specialty stores — those things that grow from people’s hearts,” says Butcher, from the Main Street Parkville Association. “That’s what makes us cool. That’s what sets us apart.”

Paper cranes hang over the register at Northland Exposure. The gallery’s artists, who range in age from 32 to 80, have created masks from gourds, wood-burning art and enough metal to outfit a knight. Wollner, 63, designs jewelry pieces that marry gemstones and sterling silver. It’s how she unwinds from her job as a clinical scientist.

“I just can’t wait to come in and see everybody’s cool stuff,” says Wollner. “Everybody just goes in their own direction.”

After you’ve been browsing for a few hours, Parkville Coffee is an inviting place to stop. It may very well be the most modern shop downtown, with steel tables, pendant lights made from repurposed coffee cans, and a barista counter constructed from wooden shipping crates. As a result, or perhaps because of the pastries baked in house (save room for the cavity-inducing espresso drop cookies), a small cadre of Park University students stop by before carrying out pumpkin pie lattes in one hand and thumbing through messages on their phones with their other. The smell of coffee beans roasting puffs out into the street each time the door opens.

If it’s after 4 p.m., you’re free to head to the bar. That’s not because of an archaic law — it’s just when the Alley Bar opens at the American Legion Post 318. Sharp red vinyl stools line a long wooden bar, where you’ll either find conversation or a pair of flat-screen televisions to keep you occupied.

“The drink prices are reasonable, and everybody in there is real friendly,” says Brian Cookson, a member of the Sons of the American Legion who lives just north of Parkville. “It’s just a laid-back place to get a beer.”

As you head north on Main Street, the downtown district slowly gives way to a series of Victorian homes with grand porches. On this Wednesday afternoon, a pair of painters stand their easels between parked cars. The Main Street Inn Bed Breakfast, at 504 Main St., a block before the downtown district ends, is beginning to take form in oil paint on their canvases.

Wines By Jennifer is a wine, beer and cheese shop set inside of one of those Victorian homes built in 1902.

“The retail stores close at 5 p.m., and people can come have a glass of wine,” says owner Jennifer Stanton. “Then we close at 8, and people can go on to the restaurants.”

Each room inside the house is tied to a geographical wine-producing region, with maps on the walls and wine barrels repurposed as tables. The basement is an art gallery with little nooks where small groups can sit and enjoy bottles of wine or cheese plates (Wines By Jennifer has 40 kinds of Osceola cheese).

Two couples have been married under the grape vines and string lights that hang over the back patio. And on occasion, a wine tasting can have some musical accompaniment because of the black baby grand piano on the second floor.

“Feel free to play,” says Jamie Klare, an employee who was once a wine club member. “We’re fine with ‘Chopsticks.’”

The business, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in April, is poised for a big expansion. Stanton and her husband, Don, are preparing to open additional outposts in other cities as soon as next year. Although Stanton says the first will likely be in a Midwestern city — maybe Omaha or St. Louis — she also has her eye on a second Kansas City area location.

“We’re looking for that scene and small-town community feel. Here we’re focused on making everyone successful, not just ourselves. That’s what we want,” says Stanton.

Wines By Jennifer has members from across Kansas City, and Butcher sees it as the kind of business that Parkville needs to attract.

“We need destinations,” says Butcher. “I think people long for a hometown, and this can be everyone’s hometown.”

She points to one potential plan that calls for expanding retail along Missouri 9, where larger lots would allow for additional parking and the potential of a two- or three-story building. The new shops could then serve as a gateway to the existing downtown district.

Back at Northland Exposure, Wollner looks out to Main Street and explains why she drives from Kearney to sell her art in Parkville.

“I want this for every little town in Missouri. There’s so much beautiful architecture and that homey feel,” says Wollner. “It’d be a shame to lose it.”


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