By Mary Divine
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
The man buying 50 pounds of birdseed this week at the Stillwater Farm Store did a double-take when he met the store’s new owner.
She was a blond woman dressed in jeans and a blue-and-white checkered blouse with a pair of pink reading glasses tucked in the collar, and she looked vaguely familiar. But Roger Wohlers of Stillwater couldn’t place her name.
“Kolls?” he asked. “Rebecca Kolls?”
“How do you know that name?” asked Kolls, a former WCCO-TV meteorologist. “Think about it. Think about who used to get the weather right all the time. That’d be me.”
Wohlers, who has bought birdseed at the Farm Store for more than 20 years, didn’t hesitate to disagree.
“You’re the only people I know who can be wrong 100 percent of the time and keep your job,” he said.
Kolls — the one-time host of her own network TV show “Rebecca’s Garden,” a former lifestyles and gardening contributor for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the editor-in-chief and publisher of the quarterly magazine “Seasons by Rebecca” — now is turning to retail. This year, she bought the Stillwater Farm Store from the family of longtime owner Georgann Koelln, who died in 2014.
Kolls, 54, who lives in Hudson, Wis., said Koelln’s husband, Dennis Kilbane, asked her to come to the shop last fall and give him some advice.
“I came in, and I couldn’t see across the store because it was stacked from floor to ceiling with inventory,” she said. “You couldn’t even see the windows. … They had, like, 10,000 bird feeders, 10,000 flags, and that was about it.”
Kolls told Kilbane that he would need to “reinvent” the store and “totally clean it out,” she said.
“I started helping him, giving him ideas, just as a friend, and then finally he said, ‘Would you just take it over?’ ” she said.
Kolls, a full-time consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture, a consumer-trend research firm based in Minneapolis, called on friends from her TV days to help. Designer and artist Peggy Pribil, for example, now runs the front of the store.
“Never in my life would I ever have dreamed of doing anything like this,” Kolls said. “But when a friend came to me and said, ‘Can you help me?’ As I started working with him, I was, like, well, maybe I could do this. I started calling friends, who, of course, now work here and basically run the store. We’re living our dream. For us, this is simple, stupid stuff because we love this.”
The front of the store has undergone a major makeover since Kolls took over in January. “A little lady who’s been shopping here for 30 years walked in and said, ‘Oh, you put windows in,'” Kolls said. “I said, ‘They’ve always been here.’ She said, ‘I’ve never seen them.'”
Merchandise is displayed on old farm items such as galvanized troughs turned upside down and barn slats perched between ladders. Stone and wood benches are on display outside.
“Everything is for sale,” Kolls said. “That’s the problem: When someone buys one (of the benches), it’s one less seat for someone.”
The back of the store is devoted to animal feed. The floor is piled high with bags of feed for horses, poultry, sheep, pigeons, alpaca, bison, dogs, cats, cows, pigs and birds. Store manager Jason Succo, a Farm Store employee since 1995, boasts that the store sells feed for almost every kind of animal.
“We even have a bag of tiger food back here,” he said.
The store is famous for its birdseed mixes. “We have our own recipes, and the price can’t be beat,” Kolls said. “You can’t find anything like it anywhere else.”
Although the farm and birdseed business is brisk, Kolls said it quickly became clear she had to stock her shelves with an eye toward “destination tourist travelers” — and to open Sundays.
“Opening on Sundays was a no-brainer for me,” she said. “It was, like, hello? That’s when people are here. Why would you not be open?”
She proudly points out the merchandise she has personally chosen to sell: Ceramic plates that look like paper plates? Check. Carrot cake jam? Check. Lavender sachets? Check.
“I want to spread the love of lifestyle living and experiences,” she said. “I’m just shopping from my heart. I want all this stuff but can’t have it, so I live vicariously through the people who shop here.”
Who knew, for example, that jigsaw puzzles would be so popular? Kolls started stocking them six weeks ago and can barely keep up. A top seller is a 500-piece puzzle featuring a squirrel under the caption, “Who me?”
“People just want happiness,” she said. “We’re in the business of happiness.”
Much of the merchandise comes from local artists and small “cottage-industry entrepreneurs,” she said. There’s maple syrup from Luck, Wis., a one-log campfire kit from Bemidji, Minn., and jam from Minneapolis.
One corner of the store is devoted to food.
“I’m trying to instill the love of lifestyles rooted in nature, so I’m trying to find product like this one,” Kolls said, pointing to a jar of Wind & Willow Farm Stand Fresh Make Your Own Pickle Mix. “This is an opportunity for people to pickle their own things. It’s a real simple kit. If you can boil water, literally, you can pickle.
“I figure if I can get just a few people going, it might lead them to do bigger and better things and be more sustainable at home.”
Kolls grew up in Salt Lake City, the second youngest in a family of seven children. Her maternal grandfather, Matt Zakersek, taught her to garden.
“He was an organic gardener way before it was cool,” she said. “He always taught me that you had to live in harmony with the Earth. … Little did I know that he was planting this seed for the love to the Earth.”
That love of the Earth may one day lead to a name change for the store.
“It might turn into Rebecca’s Roots,” she said. “I’m going to plant the seed next spring and maybe have product with that name on it. … I have favorite recipes that I preserve and can for gifts. Everybody’s, like, you need to sell this stuff. Well, maybe I can do that. I’m at the age where I’m looking for that next chapter.”