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Archive for Monday, September 27, 1999

September 27, 1999

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Lawrence business owners Mark and Kathy Swanson try to infuse their stores with flair.

In one window of Hobbs, 700 Mass., stands a small, upright white porcelain hand, fingers outstretched, its pinkie snapped off at the base.

On the palm, a message written in black ink beckons passers-by:

Missing something? Try Hobbs -- the Host of cool

Surrounding the porcelain hand is an artful jumble of eye-catching merchandise, a sly mix of props and products that often brings foot traffic outside the store to a halt.

It's like "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" with price tags.

Mark and Kathy Swanson -- owners of the 2 1/2-year-old Hobbs -- are the source of the intelligence and wit radiating from window displays seemingly more at home in New York's hip, artistic SoHo district than on a Kansas college town's main drag.

"We see retail with a sense of humor. It's not heart surgery," Kathy Swanson said.

Hobbs, by the way, sells a dazzling fusion of seemingly unrelated items.

You'll find everything from reproductions of vintage baseball caps -- remember the Cuban Sugar Kings, anyone? -- to surplus, commercial-grade dishware bearing legends such as "Home Run Inn" and "P.F. Chang's China Bistro."

Hobbs got its name from one of Mark Swanson's favorite films, the 1962 Jimmy Stewart comedy "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation."

The couple also own Spectator's, 710 Mass., a women's clothing store open for 18 years.

The selection at Spectator's -- featuring lines of stylish, tasteful fashions -- is worlds away from the funky eclecticism on display at Hobbs.

But it's clear the same deft touch with merchandising is at work there.

"Drama, theatricality. That's what retail's all about," Mark Swanson said. "We try to make it fun and alive. Then it becomes easy."

'Absorbs everybody'

Both graduates of Kansas University, Mark Swanson has lived in Lawrence since 1969, while Kathy Swanson came here a year later.

"We love Lawrence -- it's our favorite place. The town is so supportive, and our customers are our friends," she said.

For the couple, married 25 years, retail's not just business.

It's become a way of life.

"We're at a market, gift show or trade show somewhere in the country every six weeks," Mark Swanson said. "Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Dallas."

"We explore all the time, everywhere we go," Kathy Swanson added. "Whether we're in restaurants, stores, whatever -- for us, it's all retail."

If Hobbs has a certain SoHo feel, it's no coincidence.

"We spend a lot of time in New York. The night before we opened Hobbs, we realized it had a real SoHo flavor," he said.

When asked about the degree of involvement that their daughters -- Shauna, 18, and Alex, 8 -- have in Hobbs and Spectator's, the Swansons laughed.

"We call Alex the vice president of toys," he said, noting his daughter's delight with the wide range of gadgets and gifts offered at Hobbs.

"These are family businesses. Our kids grew up down here."

'A million ideas'

Shauna recently left Lawrence for her freshman year at the Otis School of Art in Los Angeles, where she's studying design. Alex is in third grade at St. John School.

Shauna, long a fixture behind the counter at Hobbs, has shown a strong interest in entering the family business.

"I think she's catching the same verve for retail that we feel," Mark Swanson said.

Ever since opening Spectator's, the whole family's been in the experience together.

"It takes a 24-7 approach to succeed (in business) when you're doing it as a family. It absorbs everybody.

"You're either into it, or you're out of it real quick," he said.

Though they love traveling the country to soak up merchandise ideas, the Swansons said they have no interest in moving elsewhere.

"But are we tempted to expand the business? Oh, yeah. We're always kickin' that around. We'll do more retail businesses," he said.

"We have a million ideas," Kathy Swanson added.

-- Jim Baker's phone message number is 832-7173. His e-mail address is jbaker@ljworld.com.

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