By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It’s an unlikely business in an unlikely spot with an unlikely entrepreneur.
Nine years ago, Sarah Ditzenberger, soft-spoken but tenacious (she used to skate roller derby) took out a $20,000 home equity loan and opened a bright, cheerful little shop, stocking it with everything from fabric and wooden toys to vintage dishware and gnome jack-in-the-boxes.
Today, Fischberger’s Variety is still bright, still cheery and, if anything, even more packed with an eclectic, quirky mix of goods, displayed with a deft touch the unassuming Ditzenberger may not even realize she has.
And her business remains the retail anchor of its immediate neighborhood. The only one.
When Ditzenberger mashed her maiden name, Fischer, with her married name and opened Fischberger’s in November 2006 in what for decades had been a vacant space at 2445 N. Holton St., she had a couple of things in mind.
A Riverwest resident and active participant in community life, she thought it would be great if the area had a place for moms and kids to walk to, someplace like a variety store, like the Ben Franklins she used to love to visit.
It would be good for Riverwest.
“I really like business, and I thought what can I do, what can I start in my neighborhood with the limited amount of money that we had,” Ditzenberger said.
Rents on Center Street were too high. But the three-story apartment building on Holton with commercial space on the ground floor had just been renovated, and was reasonable. She signed a 10-year lease.
There wasn’t any other retail nearby that meshed with Ditzenberger’s shop, and nine years later, there still isn’t.
“I think people question a lot that I’m on Holton Street,” Ditzenberger said.
It hasn’t been easy. Ditzenberger, who shares personal details that many people — certainly many business people — don’t disclose, readily acknowledges that. The first six or seven years, she said, there was almost no business.
“If I had it to do over again, I don’t know if I would go through the challenge,” she said.
At first, Fischberger’s emphasized practical goods — sewing notions, art supplies and such. Ditzenberger wanted to offer useful things. Customers, though, were more interested in gifts and greeting cards, so Ditzenberger began tilting her selection that way.
Without much money, she’s had to be careful in choosing items. That necessity, and her increasingly practiced eye, have produced a card assortment unlike anything in chain stores (“Breaking Bad” fans, check out the birthday wishes from Jesse), and merchandise ranging from 10-color pens and Edgar Allen Poe tote bags to Slo Poke candy and periodic-table wrapping paper.
She picked up early on Spirograph, the ’60s-era drawing toy that faded from the scene, then was revived in 2013 and has been a specialty-store hit. Another winner was the “Floating Ball Game,” a deceptively simple toy based on a scientific principle that helps keep airplanes aloft.
“I love her merchandising,” said Carl Nilssen, owner of a Milwaukee marketing and design firm, and chairman of a business improvement district a little more than a mile north of Fischberger’s. “She’s really clever the way she presents her stuff, and it’s really fun. … She just has a real great sense of style.”
Ditzenberger, though, seems a little baffled that someone would comment on her design aesthetic.
“I don’t really think about that,” she said. “I like color and I like things in artful packaging and everything should work well … and then that’s probably about it.”
She owns Fischberger’s with her husband, Jeff, a chef at Beans & Barley and a rock guitarist (Powerwagon). With their two children, they live less than three blocks from the store.
Ditzenberger, 42, had a rough childhood — various stepfathers, moving around — and didn’t have the kind of support system that helps young people get established in college and beyond. She studied fashion for a year at Mount Mary University but quit under the weight of overwhelming bills, and a bit of self-discovery.
“I realized there’s no way that I’m going to be able to operate in this world — in the fashion world — because I’m just not a self promoter,” she said. “It’s just not me.”
She’d never been robbed until last year, when she got hit three times. She believes the robberies, all by teenage boys, were related. No arrests were made.
She installed security cameras and signs alerting would-be criminals to their presence, and has had no further trouble. The robberies didn’t keep her from opening the store the next day, though that was difficult.
“I didn’t want to go from a person who was like completely naïve and open and trusting to everybody, to being somebody who was afraid,” she said. “I’d rather go back to that perfectly naïve person, honestly.”
Ditzenberger has crosses tattooed on the backs of both hands. They’re not so much an advertisement of faith as they are permanent reminders to herself to take care with “what I say and do before I say and do it.”
And people, she says, are good.
“I mean, have you met somebody who’s a really bad person?” she asked. “I can’t remember when I met someone I thought was really an awful person.”
There’s lots of talk about the rising buy-local feeling, but with consumers offered a wealth of shopping choices ranging from dollar stores to discount supercenters, running a specialty retail outlet is challenging in any neighborhood.
“There are just so many options for people,” said Tom Stuhlmacher, co-owner of Winkie’s, a variety store that has been a Whitefish Bay fixture since 1964.
“It sounds like she is doing pretty much what we’ve done over the years — you find some special areas that work well for you, like toys and greeting cards for us, and gifts and candy, and go with those and expand on them,” Stuhlmacher said.
Ditzenberger has a long way to go to match Winkie’s 52-year run.
With more than $145,000 in sales last year, Fischberger’s is doing better than it ever has, and it provides a modest living. Still, Ditzenberger wavers when talking about the store in its present location.
“I go back and forth with really wanting to stay here and then also like really wanting to make some money in my life, too, and not be in debt and such,” she said.
But in the end, she says she’s committed to Holton. She has ideas for developing co-op retail on the street, and wants Fischberger’s to remain.
“We’re going to sustain ourselves, for sure,” she said.