Three years ago today, I flipped a sign and unlocked a door and, that simply, Neena was.
Opening the door on January 22, 2011 was a simple act, but the road to Neena was full of adventure and the road since has taught us much. We’ve grown tremendously since those first days, experiencing an exponential learning curve in the world of retail and fashion. But it’s the go-with-your-gut instinct that has set us apart and created a community of loyal and supportive women who love what Neena is about.
That commitment to go-with-your-gut is how it all began. Neena didn’t become a thing because of a lifelong goal or a entrepreneurial dream or even a plan. It was the space. Neena became a thing because when I saw the vacant space at 1827 Parmenter in downtown Middleton, I felt that something special needed to go here and I wanted to make that happen. Middleton had become special to me; relocating here in 2008, Middleton is where I planted roots in Wisconsin. Knowing not a soul in the state, having a career that was computer and telephone-based and being the single parent of a toddler was isolating to say the least. When I dared to venture out, downtown Middleton was my destination. Villa Dolce, Barriques, Little Gym, the library. These were our outings. Close enough to the house I rented that I didn’t fear getting lost. Faces became familiar as the months passed. In 2009, I opened a dance studio just beyond the Middleton city limits and by 2010, Wisconsin finally felt like home.
After selling my studio in fall of 2010, I was at a crossroads. I found myself sitting at Villa Dolce on an unseasonably warm October day, sipping a glass of wine. The sun was setting and the building across the street had a vacant storefront that looked so warm and welcoming and special that I couldn’t imagine how it wasn’t a thriving business. I remember the exact moment of looking in the window. Not able to wait to investigate, I had crossed the street, wine glass in hand, to have a closer look. Even the pink walls – every one of them – couldn’t detract from the possibility and unique feel of the space. This amazing little town which had become my home deserved to have something great in this space. I will open a business here. Just like that, it was decided.
But what kind of business?
A research biologist by education, a non-profit executive by profession, a dancer and studio owner by experience … what could I possibly open? It was really a process of elimination to decide what would occupy 1827 Parmenter St. It could have just as easily been an independent bookstore as a women’s boutique. But research and my instincts told me that a special little corner shop with comfortable clothes and exceptional service was what this space needed. And so less than two weeks later, Neena the idea became Neena the business.
One thing I want to share is that this wasn’t a frivolous decision. Though it happened quickly – it went from idea to opening in three months – it was not without careful thought, number crunching, market research and serious personal risk assessment. I had lost a great deal of personal funds in the sale of my studio and could hardly consider myself in a good financial position to open a retail store. I would have to take out a loan and, in doing so, sign over everything I owned to the bank to secure the loan. That said, from the time I decided to open Neena, I did not hesitate. I would open a store in this space in this town and would do whatever it would take to make it a success. I slept very little during this time. Fueled by excitement, adrenaline and ambition, it was a very busy time.
And we made it happen. We did. With an incredible friend and my first employee, Ronni Levine, with me every step of the way, we got the keys to 1827 Parmenter on December 1, 2010. That first day, we pulled down ceiling tiles. Then we painted and painted and painted, late into the night. Late into many nights. We researched store fixtures and planned displays. We laid flooring. All by ourselves. We oversaw construction of dressing rooms and created a lighting plan. We installed insulation and a new (gorgeous) tin ceiling. Friends – Dan! – carved time out of own busy their lives to help. We went to market as total rookies with no one to guide us. We learned retail. Fast. I had a loan payment to make in a month which meant we needed to open for business.
We hired staff – and three of our original hires are still with us today. Mary Lou Garnett, Sara Leverson and Catherine Pippitt joined Neena in early 2011 and we’ve been together since. Three holiday seasons, three summer sales, three anniversaries and countless private parties, special events, fashion shows and good times. These women are as much a part of what Neena has become than anything I have done, and probably more. They have shaped in it ways I could not have anticipated and yet now I can’t imagine it without them.
On January 22, 2011, Ronni and I opened the doors to waiting friends and customers and we sold the merchandise we had carefully selected at market. ‘Neena’ went from being a grade school nickname to an up-and-running boutique in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Since then, our neighborhood in downtown Middleton has become home. Fellow business owners have become dear friends and they offer constant support, advice and good humor as we all navigate the unpredictable terrain of small local business operation together. How different Neena would be without the summer evening gelatinis at Villa Dolce, the after workout breakfasts and high tea treats from Sofra, the ‘cupcake-thirty’ visits to Bloom and Friday happy hours at The Freehouse. This is home.
The space inspired Neena. So it goes without saying that leaving 1827 Parmenter St is devastatingly sad. Unfathomable, really, on so many levels. Relocating Neena is not a choice I would have ever made. The space inspired Neena. I couldn’t – and still cannot – imagine Neena anywhere other than 1827 Parmenter St. Unfortunately, it is not my decision to make. The owner of the building has determined that another business is better suited for this space. While I strongly disagree, perhaps I am biased. My life is tied to this space and this place – Middleton – in more ways than just business.
In August of 2012, I joined the recruit class as a volunteer firefighter with Middleton Fire District (MIFD). In December 2013, along with 25 classmates, I graduated as a Wisconsin State Certified II Firefighter. Since joining the department, I have responded to dozens of calls, many times sprinting to the fire station on University Avenue from Neena (it’s faster than taking my car) when my pager sounds at work. Much like the staff at Neena, the 120+ associates at MIFD have become my family and my seven year-old daughter feels as much at home at the station as she does at Neena or at home. Being a firefighter only underscores my appreciation and affection for this city and town. A poetic connection is that the Opera House building, in which Neena is currently located, nearly burned to the ground in 1900. It was this devastating fire that raged through downtown Middleton that led to the formation of Middleton Fire Company 1 in 1901. As a firefighter at Middleton Fire District, I am now a voting member of Middleton Fire Company 1. There is a photo taken just after this fire where you can clearly see the crumbling wall and windows of 1827 Parmenter St. I have often looked at the photo and then, the next day, gone to that exact brick wall in my store, running my hands along the now boarded-up windows that are enclosed in an indoor alleyway, appreciating the history and connection of a building. Full circle, in a way?
I relocated to Middleton from Cross Plains in 2013 to be closer to Neena, to the fire station and so that my daughter can attend Middleton schools. As a single parent, it makes a significant difference to leave work for 15 minutes to pick your child up from her school 3 miles away than to leave for an hour to get her from school 15 miles away.
And so Middleton really is home. I live here, I own a business here, I am a volunteer firefighter here.
With each challenging life experience, I feel like I get better at trusting that the outcome will work out. I don’t mean blindly throwing it to fate, passively letting go. I mean I get better at understanding that you can’t fight ‘unfair.’ You can’t be angry at ‘unfair.’ At least not for long. You look at ‘unfair’ as a thing, recognize it for what it is, push it aside and move forward, stronger and wiser. This is, without question, one of those challenging times. Having to leaving this space and our neighborhood is unfair. Letting go and moving forward will be a daily challenge.
I don’t know yet where we are going, but we are going somewhere. Neena will remain in business as my entire financial, professional and personal life is tied up in it and you don’t just close up shop when things are unfair or challenging, right? That’s not living beautifully! Middleton is home, but options are limited so I am considering a variety of west side locations. As soon as we have something to announce, we will let you know.
I know I speak for Ronni, Mary Lou, Sara and Cat when I say that we are counting on all of you for your support, positive thoughts, encouragement, humor and friendship as we explore new territory – literally and figuratively. You have given us so much already, but we get our energy and enthusiasm from you, our friends and loyal customers. Thank you for getting us to where we are and for following us wherever we go!
Also, do any of you like to paint?
With gratitude and friendship always,
Above: Deneen and Ronni commemorate the day we received the keys to 1827 Parmenter St. In 2010 (top) and 2013 (bottom).