This article was originally published in the November 2017 Princeton Echo.
Palmer Square isn’t a wilderness. And its emporiums are scarcely homesteads. But with the coming of the Internet, the borders of today’s American retail scene are shifting and largely unexplored. In the uncertain landscape of this new frontier, Homestead Princeton, a home furnishings, gift and design destination at 43 Hulfish Street, offers shopping immersion and a sense of community as an alternative to distant and faceless — but quite threatening — e-commerce.
“Experiential retail,” says Ron Menapace, who co-owns the store with his wife, Kristin. “It’s a theme Kristin and I talk about frequently.”
In 2012 the Menapaces opened what they called the Farmhouse Store. The name hearkened to downhome pleasures but proved too quaint and definitely misleading. So this past September Ron and Kristin — a couple who are as athletic and nimble as their business — rebranded their shop as Homestead Princeton.
Of its first framing as Farmhouse Store, Kristin says, “I often overheard customers saying, ‘This is too country. I don’t know if I can buy here.’”
“It limited our scope,” says Ron. And that scope is genuinely broad. The store’s decor and style choices are many, represented by sturdy yet aesthetically inviting furniture, unique repurposed antiques, and charming (and frequently clever) small gift items. Americana, rustic, industrial, shabby chic, beach cottage, and French provincial styles to name a few are all presented seamlessly across some 6,500 square feet of showroom, office, and workshop areas.
But what hasn’t changed — and what Kristin and Ron believe is central to Homestead Princeton’s popularity and prosperity — is a welcoming warmth, direct product experience, and wise customer counsel that the Internet simply can’t provide.
Stepping over the store’s threshold a potential customer immediately luxuriates in Frasier fir scent, the lilt of windchimes, the warmth of rugs, towels, and wall hangings, and the welcomes of attentive salespersons. Far from being cloying, there is a surprising genuineness about it.
“It’s a very tactile experience,” says Ron. “Coming into the store, you smell the candles, touch the blankets, hear the wind chimes. This is more experiential than point and click.”
As Kristin says, “people can actually experience the product itself” (sitting on the sofas and easy chairs of a corner dedicated to living room furniture rather than running a mouse over it).
The Homestead Princeton concept differs significantly from the familiar major mall shopping-as-entertainment experience (such as entering a Bass Pro Shop to be immersed in a suggested fishing, hunting, or camping trip). Homestead Princeton not only appeals to the senses or imagination; Ron and Kristin are mindfully offering personal and community relationships. This, they believe, gives them an additional advantage over point-and-click behemoths like Amazon.
But the right location is paramount. Princeton — with its small-town feel, artistic and historical sensibilities, and strolling habits — has proved an ideal site. But the bitter truth of these disruptive times is that Princeton’s owner-operated stores continue to dwindle. The latest announced closing is Hulit’s Shoes at 142 Nassau Street, in the Hulit family for the past 88 years.
Paradoxically, the poignant news about Hulit’s comes when Amazon, of all companies, is establishing retail outposts in the form of bricks-and-mortar stores in select locations. Is the Internet behemoth acknowledging that customers want to hold or try on certain products prior to a sale?
The Menapaces have no immediate plans to raid back across the retail border into Amazon’s territory. Their revamped website has no sales portals — yet. “We may do small items by e-commerce in the future,” Kristin says. “Things that are easily shipped,” Ron adds. “We wouldn’t send a table.”
The key for a bricks and mortar store to survive in a clicks and order world might be summed up in one comment from Ron Menapace: “A lot of [our] items are one-offs, so it’s hard to do e-commerce. [They’re] unique pieces that don’t necessarily lend themselves to e-commerce.”
In addition to simply surviving since its arrival in Princeton five years ago, Homestead Princeton has received its share of kudos: Home Accents Today, a trade magazine, included it among the “Top 50 Retail Stars” for 2017, the only New Jersey home decor store so honored. Equally prized is its “Sustainable Business” certification by the New Jersey Sustainable Business Initiative, the only furniture store in the state so designated.
“For example, the cushions of the sofa you’re sitting on,” says Ron. “It’s all plant filling. For people’s homes, it’s something not only beautiful but healthy.”
“We love reclaimed and recycled materials,” Kristin says, touching on a major aspect of Homestead Princeton’s customer appeal.
Ron notes that centuries-old barns and houses live on in wood used for one of the custom-made tables or chairs that are among the store’s most admired (and priciest) offerings, “instead of that wood ending up in a landfill or someone taking a match to it.”
“But,” he adds, “some clients don’t want wood that’s too rustic, too rough.” In response, Homestead Princeton is now carrying handmade tables, chairs, and benches from Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, featuring smooth wood but retaining a traditional look.
“We’re interested in a timeless style,” Ron says. “We’re looking for something authentic. Not a cheap reproduction with veneer wood. Something you’ll pass on to your children.”
“We have four children ourselves, so that’s important,” says Kristin. (Their youngest is a girl of three; next, boy and girl twins age six and a half; the eldest a girl of nine.)
Homestead Princeton showcases an array of nearly unique hand-crafted items. During a tour of the showroom, Ron delights in picking up a lazy-susan made from a wine barrel top, then turning it over to reveal its dark underside: “Still has burgundy staining,” he says with a smile.
One line of lamps is the work of a vendor-artist who is also a jeweler. “She creates casts of the lamp bodies and send them to a glass blower,” Ron says. “She makes earring-like pull chains. Then she sends the lamps to her sister, who makes the silken shades.” He says that “we’re fortunate to have a network of these artists. I don’t think you get that from e-commerce.”
Another favorite vendor travels the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia and brings back unusual, often antique items. A two-child school desk found in Indonesia stood awaiting American youngsters to share learning and a bit of fun.
“Initially when we opened, we didn’t have much for kids,” Kristin says. “But then we had regular requests for something for them, and we opened a small children’s gifts area.” As part of its community-building, Homestead Princeton is hosting monthly story times with coloring books and reading by friends and staff.
Like all good pioneers, Ron and Kristin Menapace are explorers and foragers as well as homesteaders and planters. When interviewed, they were about to take their camper (an appropriately retro-classic Airstream) to North Carolina and visit a vendor during the trip — very much a hunting and gathering expedition.
“I’m bringing a spreadsheet with me,” says Ron. “One client has an entryway he’s decorating. He wants a table with storage, 12 to 18 inches deep, old wood and metal in blueish hues. This guy would have to spend years looking for this on his own.” Ron breaks into a victorious grin. “I’m going to find it for him!”
“And it comes back to the sights and smells and sounds,” says Kristin. “I don’t think e-commerce can compete with that. And that personal touch — I want to know from my customers how [a purchase] worked for them when they come back the next time.”
“Meeting the people who actually make or find these things is the coolest part of what we do,” says Ron. “I’d rather work with someone I know.” Adds Kristin: “And to hear their personal stories, how they got started.”
‘We’re woven into the fabric of the community.’
Ron and Kristin Menapace don’t exactly finish each other’s sentences, but each tends to enhance the other’s statements. Not surprisingly, their design senses are also enhancing and complementary. “My style tends to be more masculine, more rustic,” says Ron. “Kristin is good at making a space pretty.”
Born in Illinois, Kristin grew up in Riverton in South Jersey. She earned a B.S. in economics from Rutgers at what was then Cook College, followed by a master’s of science in economics at Rutgers. Previously a teaching assistant, she stayed on as an assistant dean working with first-year students. “I could have gone corporate,” she says, “but I really liked working with people.”
Kristin’s father was an actuary for Unocal, a California-based petroleum corporation. Kristin’s mother worked at Rutgers Camden and as a consultant to small businesses at George Mason University before retiring. “She’s definitely been an inspiration in my life,” Kristin says.
Kristin and Ron met in Somerville as next-door neighbors. “I saw Kristin riding her motorcycle down her driveway, and I thought, ‘I’d like to get to know her!’”
Ron, who has “had 14 addresses in 16 years,” has traveled full circle. He was born in Hillsborough, the youngest of six children of a carpenter father and homemaker mother. “It’s amazing to come later within 15 miles of where I grew up.”
He graduated from the University of Dayton in Ohio with a degree in sports management, which he subsequently applied to managing sporting goods stores. But he also did freelance graphic design work for companies on the side.
After college, Ron put his family carpentry skills to work, earning money by refinishing or building furniture. (He later refurbished a Queen Anne-style home while living in Somerville). But he eventually entered a pharma industry career with Sepracor.
The couple came to Princeton in 2011. “When we moved back, I was still in corporate,” Ron said. “Within a year I saw there was an opportunity in Princeton for this kind of store.”
Says Kristin: “We’re woven into the fabric of the community.” Kristin runs the Baby Boot Camp stroller-based fitness program, a year-round endeavor providing exercise and get-out-of-the-house socializing. They also count other local business owners as friends as well as colleagues. “There’s a lineage [in Princeton] of entrepreneurial owner-operated stores,” Ron says. “We’re proud to be part of that and know a lot of the other owner-operated business in town.” (They were visibly surprised and saddened to hear of Hulit’s imminent closing.)
One policy that fosters collegiality is that Ron and Kristin try not to compete directly with neighboring shops. Says Ron, “We typically buy very carefully, not items that you will see in town or near town [but] things you’re not finding elsewhere.”
At the time of this interview, a young couple enters the store and consults with a staff designer, who listens closely and then gives a nod of her head and a definitive “Oh!” She walks off purposefully, followed by the clients.
“That’s a big part of our business,” Ron says. “We want to give you an entire look for your home, coordinating every part of the aesthetic of that room.”
Homestead Princeton typically has three or four interior designers on staff. Working out of the store, they are aware of client visits and selections. Says Ron: “There are a lot of interior designers that charge you a thousand dollars just to step over your threshold. We pay our designers.” (Their service is free to Homestead customers, but a $500 deposit, later applied against purchases, is required.)
In addition to the in-house design staff, Homestead Princeton has its own delivery personnel. “It’s not just dropping off a load and throwing it in someone’s house,” says Ron. “We white-glove all our deliveries.”
The Menapaces are currently looking at an additional retail location, an 8,000 square feet space near the Skillman-Hopewell border. This would be not only a larger store but a driving, not walking, destination. “We can better use our resources on something like this than going into e-commerce,” Ron says.
It’s part of a three to five-year plan that may see other Homesteads established on the new retail frontier. Ron says that he and Kristin are simply “looking at the best things we can build on. This is experiential retail.”
Homestead Princeton, 43 Hulfish Street. 609-688-0777. homesteadprinceton.com. Monday to Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.