Three Generations of Sisters Build a Legacy Store
When sisters Karen Ganz and Darlene Feser opened Sentimental Journey in Washington, Illinois, in April 1982, they had no idea that their store would become such an important landmark in the town and still be booming nearly 40 years later. It all began when the two women wanted to open a retail store to help revitalize their dying downtown square and decided on a specialty boutique. They purchased the old Cilco Electric building on
Washington Square, did some renovations, and named the new shop in honor of their deceased parents, whose favorite song was “Sentimental Journey.”
Karen and Darlene were novices in the retail business, though, as both had been nurses. Realizing their inexperience, they thought it would be appropriate to open April 1. “It was kind of an inside joke,” said current owner Kris Hasten. “My mother and aunt were still stocking the store with the windows covered up when my mom thought that, since they really had no idea what they were doing, it would be fitting to open on April Fool’s Day. So they tore down the window paper and opened the door.”
Creating a Family Legacy
By 1995, both Karen and Darlene, had retired and moved to California. Karen’s daughter, Kris Hasten, who had worked at the store since its opening in 1982, talked her sister, Shelly Hines, a teacher and a stay-at-home mom at the time, into buying the store from their mom and aunt. So, in September 1995, Sentimental Journey passed from one set of sisters to the next generation of sisters.
“I attended the first gift show with my mom and aunt in Chicago and began working for them when I graduated from college in May 1982 right after we opened,” Kris said. “I fell in love with it from the beginning. I just couldn’t give it up. I loved retail. I loved the people, I loved going to markets, and I loved the challenge of finding new products. My sister and I reinvented the store by stepping out of the box and trying new things. If it was a really ‘out there’ product, we would try it in small quantities and see how it went. We had a great time raising our children and running the store together for 15 years.
“After the 2008 economic downturn, my sister decided to pursue a different career path. She still accompanied me to markets and helped at the store until I was comfortable running it on my own. Since 2010, I have been the sole owner. After I bought out my sister, I invested heavily in the popular Vera Bradley line. It really boosted store sales and expanded our age group of customers. We began having many younger shoppers and their moms visiting our store and seeing all we had to offer. We continue working hard to remain at the forefront of up-and-coming trends and new products that meet the needs of our expanding customer base.
“My husband helps with the bookkeeping and payroll. My daughters Katelyn and Lauren have worked at the shop since they were kids. Now adults, they continue the sisters-in-business tradition and work at the store with me, as well as attending markets. Like each generation of sisters, they have brought their own style and flair to the shop and have been instrumental in bringing the shop into the internet age with social media, website development, and online sales and display sets.”
Changing With the Times
Through the years, Sentimental Journey has continued to change. The original store featured Amish-built furniture, home decorating accessories, country accents, candles, children’s clothes, and penny candy, but as the years passed, they added collectibles to their inventory. Kris strives to bring in new and trending gifts, along with the tried and true, she has sold for many years.
“We have evolved through the years with new and on-trend merchandise,” Kris said. “Collectibles carried us in the early ’90s. Beanie Babies were the mid-’90s craze that allowed us to update our POS and phone system. In the early 2000s, we added more pictures and home décor. In the 2010s, we brought in Vera Bradley, and in 2013, Alex and Ani jewelry.
“In 2016, we stepped out of our box again and decided to bring in a DIY product with the leading chalk paint in the country, Annie Sloan Chalk Paint. We trained in New Orleans with the product and began teaching classes. Customers loved the hands-on classes until COVID-19 hit and we had to discontinue classes. In the past couple of years, we have expanded our children’s, jewelry, and home décor sections of the store. We’re always looking for new products.”
Exciting Products for Everyone
Kris makes sure the store carries what customers are looking for, so there’s something for everyone. “We carry inspirational and faith-based products, tabletop and home décor, jewelry and fashion accessories, baby, bath and body, candles, and seasonal boutique clothing,” she said. “Some of our prominent lines include Mudpie, Nora Fleming, Simply Southern, Ronaldo Jewelry, Annie Sloan Chalk Paint, Isabel Bloom, Vera Bradley, and Corkcicle.”
Shoppers at the store love the constant flow of new merchandise. “Our customers always comment about how excited they are to see what we found at a gift show. Our big picture window, decorated by my daughter, tends to draw people into the store as well. It catches their eye, and we often sell half our window merchandise within a couple of weeks. We highlight merchandise daily on social media posts and stories, which brings people in to purchase the cute item that they just saw posted.
“We try our best to carry many made-in-America products,” Kris added. “We also carry many personalized gifts, especially hand-lettered ornaments at Christmas time.”
Running a store hasn’t been easy, though. Kris faced several more major challenges after overcoming the 2008 crash, including a devastating tornado.
“An EF4 tornado struck our town in 2013,” Kris said. “More than 1,000 homes were lost, and in our small town of about 15,000 people, that was significant. Suddenly, gifts were the furthest thing from our customers’ minds and ours as well. Our store sustained minimal damage, but three of our 10 employees lost their homes and the homes of two others sustained severe damage. We reached out to many of our vendors to see if they could help supply care and household items for many of our customers, such as slippers and bath and body products. For about two years after the tornado, we went heavier into home décor and accessories as people rebuilt their homes and needed to furnish and decorate. Our town has healed from the tornado, but we’re all stronger and more focused on shopping local because of it.”
Then came 2019, and Kris had to deal with the pandemic, but she rallied to make the best of a bad situation.
“While we were closed, we made use of our time by painting and updating our furniture and display pieces in the store,” she said. “We also updated our website so we could take advantage of e-commerce while we were closed. We ship anywhere in the United States, so that has expanded our potential reach. We continued to do personal shopping via Facetime and social media chats and did a lot with curbside pickup. Our online traffic has picked up since then, which is a positive thing to come out of the pandemic. And we qualified for a PPP loan, which helped retain our employees during the shutdown.”
Providing Top-Notch Customer Service
Kris loves her customers and the personal connection with them, so she goes out of her way to make sure she meets their needs. “We do a lot of special orders. If we carry the line but a customer doesn’t see the product they want, we’ll order it specifically for them,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we were able to teach interactive chalk paint classes to accompany our Annie Sloan Chalk Paint products. Customers loved getting to learn specific finishes and work with the products. Those classes haven’t yet reconvened, but we have trained staff to help individually with projects.”
Connecting With the Community
Kris doesn’t stop at just pleasing individual customers. She’s deeply invested in her community and wants Sentimental Journey to continue contributing to the long-term vitality of the area.
“Our roots run deep, and we work hard to meet the diverse interests of our community through numerous special events on our historic town square,” she said. “We connect with our community in a wide variety of ways from special events to contributing products for school fundraisers and activities. I also was on a board for 11 years as we raised funds and built a $23 million community center in our town that includes an indoor swimming pool, banquet facility, fitness center, 1,100-seat auditorium, and public library. For the last three years, I’ve co-chaired the Washington Food Pantry Garden to provide fresh produce to local food pantries for our neighbors in need. I also serve on our Chamber of Commerce Board as well as leading the Specialty Shop Organization for our local town square businesses.
“Throughout the year, we put on community events on our historic town square that involve other local specialty shops. As the weather and season allow, we have food trucks, live music, and weekly activities. We also have three large seasonal events, our Autumn Fest in the fall, and our Holiday Open House and a Candlelight Stroll at the start of the holiday shopping season.”
“We celebrated 40 years in business on April 1, 2022, which is amazing in the small business world,” Kris said. “We’ve been through it all, and not only are we still standing, we’re thriving! We’re also on the cusp of the third generation taking over, which is such a fun and exciting feat as well.”
To top it off, Sentimental Journey was just awarded the Outstanding Business Award for 2022. As part of the award, the Chamber of Commerce produced a professional video showcasing the store. You can view it on the store’s website at shopsentimentaljourney.com.
Facts at a Glance
Business Name: Sentimental Journey
Location: 123 Washington Square
Washington, IL 61571
Sq. Ft.: 2,500
Social Media: Instagram and Facebook
Other Digital Marketing: Email
POS System: QuickBooks Pro POS
Trade Shows Attended: Atlanta Market twice a year. In past years, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, California
Product Categories: Gifts & home décor, jewelry, bath & Body; baby; inspirational; tabletop; stationery; Annie Sloan Chalk Paint