Our 13th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest drew 126 entries, making our independent judging panel’s choices tougher than ever. Check out which stores rose to the top and why. And feel free to draw inspiration for your own store — remember, it took years for these businesses to achieve “Cool” status. They paid their dues before achieving their dreams. And remember, too, that America’s Coolest Stores are cool beyond their interior design. They’re judged on individuality, marketing and how they tell their often remarkable stories. Among this year’s honorees are a few who launched their business or opened a store five years ago and showed their mettle by overcoming the obstacles of a Great Recession. We can all learn from stories like these. Happy reading! And congratulations to this year’s crop of Cool Stores! INSTORE magazine invited Leslie McGwire™ to be one of four judges to evaluate each jewelry store. It was an honor for Leslie McGwire™, ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) Allied to be chosen to judge the latest design work of some of the industry’s coolest looking jewelry stores.
Story by Eileen McClelland
Location: Mercer, PA
Owners: Larry Bruno
Opened Featured Location: 2009
Area: 3,000 square feet
Architect: Ligo Architects of Slippery Rock, PA
Buildout Cost: $1.1 million
Top Brands: Hearts On Fire, Gottlieb & Sons, Mark Schneider Design, LeVian, Ironmaster’s Gem, Pandora, Lafonn, Colore/SG, Imperial Pearls, Pascal Pearls, Suna Bros.
Online presence: 177 Facebook likes; 5 stars on Yelp; Alexa global rank: 6.29 million
One thing’s for sure: Larry Bruno’s decision to build a destination store in Northwestern Pennsylvania has left him with an endless supply of interesting and unlikely stories to share with customers.
When Bruno thought about having a destination store, he had not really imagined being off the beaten path. But when his real estate agent found him seven acres in the middle of nowhere he was intrigued.
“He said, ‘Larry, how would you like to have a waterfall?’ I was shocked. I didn’t know about this waterfall. I lived on the other side of the county,” Bruno recalls.
Often Larry’s wife, Linda, looks at him like he’s nuts when he proposes an offbeat scheme, but this time she was as enchanted as he with the waterfall on seven acres. “Funny enough, she liked the plan, too,” Larry says. “We’re cut from the same cloth. She said, ‘That looks wonderful,’ and so, she was on board.”
He knew all along what he didn’t want. He’d already had that.
“From very early on in the business, I thought jewelry stores were the same old thing,” Bruno says. “If they were downtown locations, they all looked the same. If they were in strip plazas, they all looked the same.”
SIRIUS RADIO’S SPA STATION. “It’s nice background music that actually works with the setting. Playing rock in here or country or jazz, sort of doesn’t work. It doesn’t go with what you’re looking at.” — Larry Bruno
Larry Bruno and his wife once bred Arabian show horses and references to their former passion can be found in the store and its marketing.
“THE LAST JEWELRY SALESMANwho visited from New York City told me he felt his GPS was incorrect as he kept getting farther away from retail businesses. Once he entered the store, he said that this is the most beautiful store he’s ever seen, a common, cherished statement that always brings a smile.” — Larry Bruno
WHETHER YOU’RE REMODELING OR JUST REFRESHING YOUR STORE, go antiquing — visiting an architectural antiques shop on your own or with your interior designer. That was the source of many of the items in Bruno’s store that infuse it with character.
Bruno studied at Bowman Technical School in Lancaster, PA, learning jewelry repair, stone setting and hand engraving in the ’70s. He worked as an apprentice, graduated to his own trade shop and opened his first jewelry store in 1981 in Hermitage, PA. After the demise of the steel mills in Western Pennsylvania decimated the local economy, he began thinking he needed more of a regional store. He admits to some apprehension about buying the land, but the plan wasn’t as outlandish as it first seemed. Although the property is off the main road, it is just a couple of miles from Grove City Outlet Mall, which attracts 6 to 8 million visitors annually, many of them from Toronto, Canada. There are also three highly regarded restaurants in the neighborhood. His store is between the mall and the restaurants.
Bruno soon found out his property has more than a waterfall on it. It is the site of the Historic Springfield Iron Furnace, which operated from 1837 to 1862.
John White, a professor from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, proposed excavating the historical iron furnace he knew was buried on Bruno’s newly purchased land. Although some friends and advisers thought the decision was ill-advised, Bruno was so curious about the project that he not only agreed to allow the dig, but he joined the excavation team in 2007 before the store was built, helping haul rocks two days a week — work he describes as brutal. “You couldn’t hire someone to do that,” he says. The dig continues even now, and Bruno thinks it’s good for business.
When Bruno began building the store, laid out to overlook the waterfall, he had recently seen a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright and so was interested in having the store blend organically with the natural environment and not stand out like “a shiny new penny.”
He incorporated stone from the furnace found in the dig that was originally quarried from the property. He also knew he wanted to open up the store with windows looking out onto the waterfall. “Jewelry stores can be stuffy and intimidating. People tend to get funny — nervous or apprehensive,” Bruno says. “Nature can take some of that away, and this view is beautiful. I felt it would create a unique experience.”
“When people open those doors, they do say ‘Wow.'” Bruno says. “They are blown away by the view. I was a little bit worried that they would just go to the windows, but they come to shop for jewelry, too.”
Ligo Architects of Slippery Rock, PA, even created a circular viewing room jutting out as close to the gorge as possible. Oak crown molding runs throughout the store, but since it would have been expensive to custom make crown molding for the curved viewing space, Bruno instead commissioned an artist to create a mural depicting what the area would have looked like in 1850, during the heyday of the iron furnace.
For the center island, Bruno refurbished oak cases he had made for his old store by adding leather tufting on the outside of them to add character and vintage charm. The color of the tufting matches the color of the carpeting. For the diamond cases, he commissioned his neighbor, an antique dealer and woodworker to craft new cases from a 19th century design.
Opening the store in 2009, of course, “right when the economy went into the tank,” wasn’t the best timing in an area already decimated by the demise of huge steel mills.
“That took the wind out of our sails. We were advertising a new store and expecting huge things,” Bruno says.
He advertised on billboards, in newspapers, in magazines and on television; he’s also ventured into social media. One complication is that he has to advertise on Youngstown, OH, TV stations to reach shoppers in his county in Pennsylvania.
But the best way to get the word out is by word of mouth.
“Having something like this, when people have relatives in from out of town, they bring them here and show them something unique. The view, the history, it helps.”
“I’ve simply allowed nature, history and romance to be part of the jewelry buying experience.”
WHAT THE JUDGES SAY
Andrew McQuilken: Take the classic high-end jewelry gallery and drop it into the heart of nature. I feel as if I have been invited into their living room, with the benefit of spectacular woodland views.
Cindy Edelstein: Of course the waterfall is the most outstanding feature but to truly make it special to their clients the events and engagement photos are a great idea. Taking a feature and turning it into a benefit is what good marketing is all about.
Danielle Miele: I’ve never met a jewelry store where you can buy an engagement ring and feel like you should have your wedding on site because it is so beautiful! The waterfall really sets this jewelry store apart from others — and the lush greenery of the outside as well!
Leslie McGwire:The architectural features of the building are warm and inviting for the clients. The use of natural materials inside and out helps with the overall environment with the warm and inviting feelings of the store. The focal points are the windows that look out to nature and the pine fireplace mantel that is 200 years old. The hand-painted mural gives the interior a unique touch of history. The lighting is bright and shows off the overall space very nice. The warm colors from the walls, to the wood on the cases, to the carpet all create a classical image.
David Geller: The interior is beautiful and overlooking nature and the waterfall is wonderful. The story is great, and I love the cut glass from the forge and slag of the factory.
1. It’s Romantic. Bridal is Bruno’s strongest niche and he plays up the romance of the setting, offering engaged couples 8-by-10 photos of themselves next to the waterfall. He’s even created a nature/history trail for visitors that takes them to the falls, the furnace, the old ironmaster’s house, mineral springs, a circa 1903 railroad track and a telegraph pole.
2. The Details.doors are from a 19th century Belgian castle. They also serve as a reminder of Bruno’s diamond buying trips to Antwerp.
The pine fireplace mantel, from an Ohio tavern, is 200 years old.
A 1911 red brass National Cash Register is used as a cash drawer.
Bruno’s workbench is a 19th century mahogany bar top from Northwestern Pennsylvania.
3. The Logo. Inside the diamond on the store logo is a picture of a horse, representing Bruno’s love for Arabian show horses. He and his wife, Linda, once had 50 horses in their breeding facility, including an award-winning stallion named Marquis de Cognac. (He couldn’t pass up a horse with the name of a diamond cut.) Although he and Linda still live on the farm, they no longer have horses.
4. Interesting Event. Bruno hosted a “Greet the Archaeologist Day.” Residents met the archaeologists who have been excavating the iron furnace site for years and thanked them for their hard work. “Their work has brought back a piece of Western Pennsylvania history that was lost,” Bruno says.
5. Artifacts. During the excavation, archaeologists found slag, a byproduct of iron making. Some pieces are mossy blue-green and some are black, resembling onyx. Bruno, seeing the material’s beauty, had some cut and polished. The resulting pendants, rings and bracelets have become hot-selling souvenirs. He calls it the “Ironmaster’s Gem,” and sells the jewelry for $125 to $7,000.