On a recent rainy day, a couple shopping at Nell Hill’s in the Northland smile as they sink into a comfy cream-colored couch, while another woman has her eye on a big, bright cobalt-colored lamp.
But if they didn’t snap up the items that day, they might not find them so easily on a return trip.
The store’s founder, Mary Carol Garrity, likes to shake things up. She and her staff, numbering about 65, regularly redesign the store — down to rearranging a tabletop of books, vases and art works — as they add new pieces. And that’s what keeps customers coming back.
“We never want to get bored. We are constantly decorating and trying to make the store better and more interesting,” she said. “We have people who come twice a month and we want them to see something different — maybe a vintage piece of glass or a new chair. I’ve always embraced change and I think that’s why Nell Hill’s has been so successful.”
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Now Garrity is embracing another transformation. She’s sold the business she started nearly four decades ago to a young Kansas City couple, Brandon and Katie Laughridge, in a deal that closed late Friday. The purchase price was not disclosed.
“We are a little bit of a dinosaur — one of the only family-owned furniture stores left in the area,” Garrity said. “We’re not for everybody. But we are for the people who don’t want to go to a big box store but someone who wants to have a relationship with someone who knows their home and their aesthetics and what their style is and can make educated suggestions from that.”
The Laughridges have been in negotiations to purchase the store since spring.
“My mom shopped at Nell Hill’s for as long as I can remember and I came with her. And my mother-in-law was a rep for a line that Mary Carol sold in Atchison and my husband would sometimes tag along with her on her sales calls,” Katie Laughridge said. “As a young couple we would make the drive to get inspiration and dream how we wanted our home to be.”
Brandon Laughridge has a property management company and Katie will handle the day-to-day operations for Nell Hill’s. She has a degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
She said she was raised at the sewing machine, learning from her “Grandma Olson,” and loves to quilt. Her passion has been textiles and fabric and she most recently worked for a California-based batik manufacturer, both in Carlsbad, Calif., and Kansas City.
“I love Mary Carol’s aesthetic — traditional shapes but not necessarily traditional color palettes and patterns,” she said.
Garrity said most changes will be operational and Katie Laughridge is already coming up with organizational ideas.
“Oh, there’s lot of room for improvement and I can’t wait to see what she does,” Garrity said. “She’s got that young female energy that will carry her through. We’re both opening up new chapters.”
Garrity has been in retail since she was a preteen, insisting on helping out in her family’s Atchison clothing store. As a fifth-grader she was steaming clothes and trimming buttonholes in the back room.
By 1981, she was working at a home furnishing store in Wichita when her father coaxed the then 25-year-old back to her hometown to open a specialty food store, the Gourmet Corner.
But her passion was still in home decor and she soon expanded into a space above, naming that floor Nell Hill’s after her maternal grandmother.
First she concentrated on trendier decor items that she knew would sell. But soon she focused on her favorite “new traditional” style and items that she would be proud to have in her own home.
A booth at the Junior League of Kansas City’s Holiday Mart put her Atchison shop on the map with Kansas City consumers, many taking the road trip on a regular basis.
Garrity kept expanding into more categories until she had three stores and became a regional draw after stories in national publications such as Fortune and the Wall Street Journal.
She’s long been the face of the shop; customers often scan the store for her, many offering cheerful hellos and hugs. She even opened her Atchison home as inspiration for holiday decor.
But by 2007, Garrity realized fewer young Kansas City families had the time to make the trip to Atchison, so she made a sweeping change — opening an 18,000-square-foot, two-story showroom in the Village at Briarcliff, 4101 N. Mulberry Drive.
The Atchison stores focused more on accessories but the new store had fully styled living areas.
In mid-2016, she closed the Atchison location.
The Garritys also moved to a smaller, more remote place she dubbed “My Cottage by the Lake.” It’s not big enough for open houses with customers but she still offers inspiration through her blog, “Style at Home.” Katie Laughridge will now take over that site.
Nell Hill’s sells items in a variety of price points, from a single stem vase for $5 to a large bookcase — “investment pieces” that customers can hand down to the next generation.
Longtime customer Pam Hannifan of Leawood said she would hesitate to sell her house because she might have to leave a favorite Nell Hill’s purchase — a large bookcase with brass rails and ladder, a piece that one of her grown children already has an eye on.
“It’s a very nice store, relaxing to go to with great prices. And you can always find something you are looking for and if you can’t they will help you find it,” Hannifan said. “Everyone is nice, from the greeter who meets you at the front door to the people who deliver your furniture to you.”
Katie Laughridge plans to continue the popular bi-annual sales — 20 percent discounts on upholstery from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15 and June 15 to July 15; and 20 percent on wood pieces Feb. 15 to March 15 and July 15 to Aug. 15.
She also will hold more store events and, as the mother of a toddler, she wants to carry more home decor items for children’s rooms.
After her first full day as owner Saturday, starting with challenges with the registers, she said it was all “feeling very real.”
Garrity said she now plans to travel more with her husband. But expect her to pop in during the transition to introduce Katie to customers.
“She’s still going to let me play in the sandbox,” Garrity said. “This has been my social life. Most of my friends I’ve made through Nell Hill’s. I’ve felt like one of the luckiest humans. I’ve gotten to do something for the last 37 years that I’ve loved.”