Friday, January 9, 2009

Stylemaker Q&A: Jane Kinney

Owner, J. Kinney Florist

Jane Kinney’s shop name J. Kinney might not convey much—certainly not like how the store Dazzle implies glitzy handbags and jewelry, or Jazzman carries suave and sophisticated clothing for the well-dressed man. Like in the tradition of the Barneys and Bergdorf Goodmans of the world, J. Kinney’s notoriety is in the name of her shop and the fact that her store has been around a heck of a lot longer than most Madison retailers—twenty-six years, to be exact.
Kinney’s aptly named shop has touches of her in it—the springy green exterior sign and the wooden-slat front screen door makes shoppers feel right at home—if their home were a quaint cottage.

Madison Magazine: What had you been doing before you opened J. Kinney here in Madison in 1983?
Jane Kinney: I lived in San Francisco for a decade. I ran a store that sold green plants but no flowers, named Jane’s Plants. I had gotten a degree in horticulture from City College of San Francisco.

I’m originally from Madison, and San Francisco is a wonderful place, but it goes on without you. I wanted to be a smaller town and I missed the Midwest since I’m from Madison. So I sold the plant store.

MM: Why did you decide to open another store in Madison?
JK: When I started, I was too new to Madison to realize that people thought that the Square was dead. I thought it was cool. I saw all of the people working downtown and thought it would be a great place for a store [Ed’s note: Kinney’s original store was located on King Street before she moved to her current location on Monroe Street].

I had read about the European flower market approach, which is basically selling flowers by the stem. That seemed to be something that would really work in an urban environment. I think I was the first that displayed flowers out of a cooler and had things marked separately instead of traditional arrangements.

[I don’t] stock traditional flowers like carnations, mums and the other staples. Our focus has moved from tropicals to as many locally grown flowers as we can find.
Even during the winter we have anemones, ranunculus and irises, and those are grown here locally. Probably ninety percent of what we sell is locally grown flowers in the summer. Some are native prairie flowers, and almost all are grown locally.

MM: Why did you move from your King Street location to Monroe Street?
JK: It was a variety of things, but the most important factor was that the rents were so high. And the conveniences of downtown were few and far between, like garbage removal. Running deliveries out of a place with no parking was hard. And downtown has evolved into an entertainment district. It was a slow process and that was the end result. That was a reason that the rents became so prohibitive. Restaurants can afford to pay more rent because they have a higher turnover than other kinds of retail.

MM: What are the differences of running a shop in San Francisco and Madison?
JK: I lived in San Francisco in the ’70s. At that period it wasn’t the city it is now; it was a city that was a series of small neighborhoods that were like their own little towns. I’m sure it’s changed vastly since then. There were a lot of hippie entrepreneurs that were opening stores without much capital.

MM: What do you focus on in the home décor and gift area?
JK: We’ve always been focused on what used to be called “shabby chic” and now would be called cottage style. I mean, not everything in here fits into that category. We just have pretty much stayed focused on that. Now there’s a new emphasis on botanical renderings, and we’re really interested in that. That combines the flower aspect with the cottage style.

We have the renderings in wall hangings, beautiful pillows with botanical images on them and shadow boxes with botanical drawings on them. It’s a more dedicated focus than a lot of gift shops would have.

Another category we have is fragranced candles, which again, is sort of a hybrid of fresh flowers and items for the home. We also have fragranced cleaning products inspired by natural fragrances. Some of our bath and body items are the same pure, natural flower fragrances and high quality fragrance using floral scents.

MM: Why do you think J. Kinney has stayed in business so long?
JK: I think it’s a cross between I have a really clear vision of what I wanted to do, and I just stuck with it. It’s sort of a combination of courage and stupidity. Does that make sense?
MM: Yep, I’ve heard that before!

MM: What’s the most challenging part of being a small retailer, and the most rewarding thing?
JK: The challenging part is that the constancy of it; you have to be here ninety-five percent of the time. It’s sort of like a dairy farmer with a herd of cows that need to be milked. You leave, and the place can sort of crumble!

The rewarding part is being able to surround yourself in what is beautiful. In January and February we’re surrounded by flowers! That’s pretty satisfying.

MM: I know that you sell some fair-trade items, but you also focus on items made in the U.S. and even locally, when you can. Can you talk about that?
JK: We really look for things that are made in this country or made elsewhere under fair working conditions. There’s very little we buy that we don’t know about the producer. If you go to our blog (, you’ll see stories and pictures of who we buy from. Five years ago when I would go to [the gift show that I buy merchandise from] you could hardly find anything that wasn’t made in China.

We also find local craftspeople. We have a woman who lives in the Monroe Street area that makes handbags. We carry handbags that are made in Colorado and the women who make them even design the fabric. We have another new company from Washington state that makes her own hats and scarves.

With the plants, Canada has taken over the market for a lot of the plants, but I don’t like the quality. The Canadian government pays a lot of the fuel costs to get the plants here. But I think their plants are weak and inferior. Or you can go into Trader Joe’s and get orchids really cheap from Taiwan. They bloom for two weeks. If you buy them here, they bloom for months.

MM: What are your favorite items you sell?
JK: My absolute favorite thing these days are these botanical pillows. They’re made in Texas and the design is silk-screened on the fabric. When you put them in a room, it’s as important as what the painting on the wall looks like. They’re gorgeous. ($139.95 by Design Legacy)

Another favorite is candles that are soy based, in a votive. They have a seventy-hour burn time and the fragrances are really interesting and complex. ($34.95 by Kobo)

[I like this] company called Lalo. It’s a jewelry designer from Israel who fashions everything out of high-quality resin. We have a keychain the designer makes that’s a whimsical design and really jazzy. She also makes sets of bracelets out of the same resin. It’s three to five bangles in a color range but can be worn together or separately. They’re really, really fun. ($65 by Lalo)

MM: Where do you shop when you’re not working?
JK: I don’t do a lot of shopping when I’m not working. I like A Stone’s Throw a lot. They have practical clothing that’s still really attractive. It’s sportswear, but more fashionable than some.

I like what Janice Durand has done to change Little Luxuries recently. I think that’s a gorgeous store.

I think Fromagination is very impressive. It looks like it was transplanted from Manhattan.

MM: Why should people “buy local”?
JK: There are so many reasons. One of them is that if people continue to buy more and more from Target and Wal-mart, more of us small retailers will be gone and the world will be a lot more boring than it is now!

And the whole idea of keeping the money in the area, rather than having it sent elsewhere. Imagine a world that had very few small retail shops. Target is good for what they do; they just will never that atmosphere that individuals create.

J. Kinney, 1835 Monroe St. 255-7500.

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