Features

Designing Woman

Creativity drives Kitty Copeland's success in home decor market
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Kitty Copeland works on a piece she will soon sell in her shop, KalamazooKitty. She also teaches classes in furniture painting techniques.

Wearing stylish, yet comfortable-looking cowboy boots and a sparkling, eye-catching belt buckle, Kitty Copeland reveals her eye for aesthetics even before she leads the way through her bustling consignment shop, KalamazooKitty, at 6883 W. Main St.

The shop, which is located west of Ninth Street and sells furniture, home décor and accessories, is one of two KalamazooKitty stores that Copeland operates in the Kalamazoo area. She opened her first store, on Portage Street, in June 2011 for a specific reason: to find the comfortable, cozy pieces she sought for her interior decorating business, KalamazooKitty Design.

“(Kalamazoo) has some furniture stores and some high-end stores and we have some thrift stores, but most of my client list is that middle-of-the-road person,” Copeland says. “I tend to decorate and appeal to a large spectrum of people, whether they are wealthy or living on a tight budget. Many of my clients are on tight budgets, which is a challenge that I thrive on. I am a bargain hunter and love the thrill of finding a great piece for a great price.”

Copeland is also a professional home stager and decorator who often trekked to Detroit and Grand Rapids in search of the right items. She says she realized that if she had this much trouble finding what she wanted, other people probably did, too.

“I just thought one day, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to open a consignment store for the person that just wants good-quality stuff and not to pay a fortune,’” she says. “But they don’t want junk either. I needed to find that middle ground — and it took right off.”

Business boom

When Copeland opened the front doors of her first consignment store in 2011, a 10,000-square-foot shop at 4217 Portage St., a block north of Kilgore Avenue, she had nothing to sell. “Nothing!” she emphasizes, smiling.

The only things inside were the front desk, which she built herself, and temporary, movable walls erected a few feet behind the desk to disguise the glaringly enormous empty space. She says her three children had a blast riding bikes, skateboarding and roller blading behind those walls — but their fun didn’t last long.

Every week Copeland pushed the walls farther and farther back into the store to create room for the items pouring in. Lacking advertising dollars, Copeland passed out postcards to anyone she could find. People showed up after hearing about her store from others, she says. She also says she believes a Kalamazoo Gazette story about her store generated awareness.

By September of the same year, the space was overflowing from front-to-back, top-to-bottom and side-to-side with consignment items such as furniture, accessories, antiques and home accents. In November, she threw a holiday party with furniture giveaways, food and live music from Kalamazoo-based country singer Shelagh Brown.

“The store was packed,” Copeland says. “The decorations were everywhere. The line was out the door. It was fabulous.”

Business at KalamazooKitty was so brisk that items generally didn’t linger longer than a few days, but new pieces were always arriving to take their place. It didn’t take long before Copeland reached an inevitable conclusion: She needed a second location.

“We got to a point after a couple of years where we were just busting,” she says. “I mean there was no room for anything. The stuff was just piling in, and I thought, ‘I have got to get another location.’”

In May 2014, Copeland opened the second KalamazooKitty location, in an 8,000-square-foot building on West Main, and “the line was around the building on opening day,” Copeland says.

An artistic eye

Copeland credits her stores’ success to her keying in on a market clamoring for something different than the modular furniture found in chain stores. She says that such mass-produced products have led to a loss of craftsmanship in furniture such as dovetail drawers and products handmade from solid wood.

“We try really hard to take in good-quality pieces that aren’t going to fall apart,” she says. “I find that’s really what people are looking for.”

For consignment pieces, Copeland accepts only clean, odor-free items. The Portage Street store alone has 3,000 consignors and tends to house 6,000 to 8,000 items at a time. Ninety percent of the business is consignment, but Copeland also sells some handmade items such as scarves, jewelry and furniture. She and her staff take all of these items and place them into well-coordinated, appealing displays.

“We just gather up what we feel looks nice together and how someone can picture it in their house,” she says.

Keeping it fresh

The way her business displays pieces so that people can envision them in their homes is one of the reasons Copeland thinks that people have really latched onto her stores — that and the constantly changing merchandise.

Last year Copeland incorporated “pop-up shops” within both of her stores, 12-foot-by-12-foot spaces where individual vendors sell their items, such as vintage filing cabinets, handcrafted tables, hand-painted nightstands and other pieces of unique décor. Not only do these pop-up spaces keep things novel and new in her stores, she says, but they also help individuals open “their own shop” without incurring the cost or time involved in owning a building.

Copeland rotates these vendors out every one to two months to keep things fresh and to give vendors a chance to catch their breath and produce more items.

“It’s basically a full-time job to keep their booths fully stocked and looking great,” she says. “They have to be here every day. If they’re not here every day, it gets very empty, very quickly.”

Copeland keeps a database of potential vendors that she reviews when choosing her pop-up booths. One rule that she follows is this: Never have two similar shops at the same time. “I find someone that’s unique,” she says. “It’s kind of the process I use for choosing pop-ups.”

At the West Main store, Copeland has a classroom where she teaches painting and home-staging classes. The store now holds up to three one-hour paint classes each month. Each class costs $10. She co-instructs the home-staging classes with her husband, Phil Copeland, an independent real estate professional with Jaqua Realtors. The home-staging classes are free.

“It’s a service we feel we can provide and share our knowledge,” she says.

The Kitty of KalamazooKitty

Copeland started her work life in elementary education, teaching in Detroit and then Portage — experience that she has put to good use in those painting and home-staging classes. Her career change toward interior decorating happened while she was on maternity leave for her now-16-year-old son. She became glued to television programs featuring interior decorating experts like Christopher Lowell.

“I got totally hooked on it,” Copeland says, “and I just started decorating anything I could get my hands on. And friends started saying, ‘Will you come to my house?’ — and then (friends’) neighbors asked.”

Copeland says she has decorated bachelor pads, lake houses and everything in between. She has staged $80,000 homes up to those for sale in the upper hundreds of thousands. Now she stages homes exclusively for her husband, whose clients receive free staging to help sell their homes.

Copeland is currently decorating a custom home in a new development on Indian Lake for the 2017 Parade of Homes, which takes place in June.

“It’s a big, time-consuming undertaking, but it’s going to be a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s what I crave. It’s my fix.”

Born entrepreneur

Entrepreneurism isn’t new to Copeland — she grew up in a retail store. Literally.

Her fondest childhood memories include creating mazes with large cardboard boxes in her father’s store, Stone’s Unfinished Furniture Store in the suburbs of Detroit. Her father, Jerry Stone, purchased the business — which originally sold hardware and was called Gambles — from his father and transformed it into a successful furniture shop. Her mother, Marcie Stone, owned a beauty salon and helped boost the furniture business with her decorating skills. Copeland’s maternal grandfather also owned a business selling machinery for the plastics industry, and Copeland’s sisters all now own businesses. Even in his retirement, Jerry Stone occasionally makes furniture to sell at KalamazooKitty.

Copeland’s own children show signs that they share this seemingly genetic entrepreneurial drive. Her 14-year-old already sketches floor plans for home designs. Her 8-year-old daughter constantly decorates and rearranges her room and has a cash register, receipt books and price tags — which are all over Copeland’s house.

“If I was out sick, she could come in (to one of the stores) and run it,” Copeland says of her youngest.

Making a marketplace

In 2016, Copeland took her trend-spotting skills outdoors. Her vendors and customers had told her about a new trend of “marketplaces,” where individual business owners set up booths to sell their antiques, consignments and handcrafted items. People are “hungry for what is up and coming,” Copeland says, and nothing like that existed in the Kalamazoo area.

Copeland put on two KalamazooKitty Marketplace events last year — in May and October — at the Kalamazoo Speedway. With more than 100 booths and a dozen food trucks, the events drew thousands of people, she says.

“Some people (vendors) sold out completely, with nothing to pack up but a tent,” Copeland says.

Vendors came from as far away as Indiana, Illinois, Detroit and the Upper Peninsula. Because space was limited and Copeland wanted a wide variety of quality items, she had a jury pick vendors for both events.

“They are people in the community that really know, that are really up to date on what’s up and coming and what people would like to see,” says Copeland. "I like to collect a variety of people and then we just sit down and look through pictures that have been submitted. I always feel bad turning someone down, but we only have so much space.”

Copeland feels that this year’s Marketplace events will be even bigger hits. There will be three “Mini Markets” with outside booths and food trucks at the KalamazooKitty on West Main. The first one will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 29, with free admission.

“I have heard so many people say they missed it and can’t wait for the next one,” she says.

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Growth Spurt

We got to a point after a couple of years where we were just busting. I mean there was no room for anything. The stuff was just piling in, and I thought, ‘I have got to get another location.’

– Kitty Copeland, owner of KalamazooKitty