Only half of all businesses survive beyond five years, and only one-third survive for more than 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage continues to shrink as the period of time grows longer.
So how did My Sister’s Circus, the small, charming boutique in downtown Columbia celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, get to be one of the businesses that survives and thrives? According to Celeste Hardnock, the store’s founder and owner, the answer is obvious: customer service.
In an age where technology reigns and every business wants to be technologically relevant, trend on Twitter, and have an interactive web page, Celeste still personally writes everything down with a pen and paper (including the store’s inventory). “We don’t use a computer for the store,” Hardnock says. “Whereas most stores today are computerized, we write everything down manually.”
And Hardnock has stuck with the simple, tireless work ethic that she used to first start the business. No employee is ever just sitting around checking their phones; there’s always something that can be done to help the customer or the store.
“We will stay late, we will deliver things to people, we will do whatever it takes and work with our customers,” says Hardnock. “We know the majority of our customers to begin with — and if we don’t, we get to know them. When our customers walk in, we like to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, we’ve got something in that looks like you.’ Maybe they don’t end up liking it, but they appreciate being thought of.”
Longtime customer Wanda Northway certainly does. She explains how you might try something on at My Sister’s Circus and hear Hardnock tell you, “That doesn’t look good, take that off.” Hardnock will refuse to offer her customers idle flattery just to get a sale — she instead works with each one to help them find something that helps them look their most glamorous.
This charismatic clothing store first got its start in the mid-’70s at Stephens College, where people came to Hardnock’s dorm room for style tips before going out with friends. “When it was time to go out,” she says, “everyone was in my room asking, ‘What should I put with this?’ ‘What do you think?’ I loved doing it but I never thought further than that.” One day, a suitemate told her, “I don’t know what you plan on doing when you graduate, but this is what you need to do.”
While still in school, Celeste went to work arranging window displays for Warren Dalton’s Columbia Mercantile Company. “He was as ‘old retail’ as you can get,” Hardnock says. “When he walked in the door, we were hopping. It didn’t matter if we were straightening the same rack 500 times in a row, you were always doing something.”
One day, Hardnock got a phone call from a friend saying that there was a business going up for sale in Columbia and that she should buy it. At this point, her experience was still mostly in window displays, which she loved doing, and she didn’t know how to operate a cash register. With encouragement from her supportive parents, she decided to buy the business, liquidate the assets, and create her own store.
The name of the store came close to being “Celeste’s Silhouettes,” but her father convinced her that would be too much of a tongue-twister. “My Sister’s Circus” was suggested by Hardnock’s sister. “She said it would be a name to get people to come in here and see what the store was all about, and it worked,” she says. “We do periodically get phone calls from people who think we are actually a circus store.”
Nothing that you find at My Sister’s Circus will be found at any of the major department stores in town. This was a lesson that Hardnock learned when the Columbia Mall came to town in the mid-1980s, when My Sister’s Circus would get a new line in the store only to be undercut by department store prices on the same line.
Hardnock works hard to maintain a unique inventory; she travels to various places across the country, especially the big cities, to not only scout out merchandise but also to see how stores organize their displays. “Display work is really important to me,” she explains, “because that’s a real calling card for our store. So you’ve got to see what’s out there and also how people are dressing, especially in the big cities.”
Celeste now runs the store with her daughter, Stella. Forty years in, don’t look for My Sister’s Circus to fold up its tents and leave town any time soon. When asked if retirement is anywhere on the horizon, Hardnock shakes her head before you even get the question out. “I still love walking through that door and I still love doing what I do.”
Through the Years:
As a student at Stephens College, Celeste Hardnock begins building window displays for Warren Dalton’s Columbia Mercantile Company.
Hardnock opens her own clothing store, My Sister’s Circus.
Hardnock focuses on creating a unique and eclectic inventory for her store in response to Columbia Mall opening.
As retail becomes increasingly digitized, Hardnock continues using pen and paper for nearly all store operations.
Hardnock is a finalist for the Columbia Daily Tribune’s Business Woman of the Year award.
My Sister’s Circus celebrates its 40th anniversary as part of Columbia’s business community.