Diva expansion reflects unique Culver economy

CULVER — In case anyone passing through downtown Culver hasn’t noticed, there’s one less empty storefront here, one more piece of evidence that the current ‘great recession’ isn’t keeping the community down, and an addition to the existing, attractive window views already offered by local merchants.
The Diva gift shop, at 109 S. Main St., officially opened its northward expansion (into the storefront whose last long-term tenant was Coldwell real estate) over Labor Day weekend, though it’s been catching eyes in recent weeks with a holiday-winter themed display. There’s also a new website to go along with the expansion (divainculver.com), and the store has a Facebook page with an ever-expanding cadre of friends (Diva may be reached by phone at 574-842-9970).
The store expansion, according to Diva owner Sue McInturff and her sister, store manager Ursula Braden, was a response to a need to expand the original shop and reduce what they perceived as a sometimes “cluttered” feeling there.
The origins of the Diva boutique lie in a spontaneous idea for the sisters, both of whom grew up in the area but returned just five years ago when their mother passed away.
“I left this area at age 18 and didn’t come back,” says McInturff. “I swore I never would. I lived in Fort Wayne for 42 years.”
When Culver’s Susie Mahler sold their mother’s Rochester home, conversation turned towards the closing of Shoreline Specialties gift shop, then at the same location. The next morning, as McInturff and Braden parking in front of Shoreline, McInturff says, “Something just took over. I said to my sister, ‘We should open a store there.’ My sister said, ‘Are you crazy?’
“I always wanted my own business,” she adds. “I was at the tail end of a career with Verizon. I contacted (building owner) Fred Karst about the space.”
McInturff credits Pam Fisher of nearby Fisher and Company Clothiers for assistance in getting started in creating an inventory of merchandise to offer, and the sisters purchased a number of the store’s fixtures from Mary’s Shoppe, which was closing its doors at the time.
The Diva opened March 31, 2007, McInturff utilizing some of her marketing background to move the project forward, and Braden making use of her years of experience working for the Hallmark store in Rochester.
The ladies’ vision, they say, differed a bit from the offerings of Shoreline, and instead tended toward “what we loved.”
“Our mother would say, ‘I don’t know where you got that expensive taste!’” says McInturff. “Our buying is more about what we wanted in our homes or to wear. We didn’t set out to say, ‘Let’s do this kind of a shop.’ Instead, let’s just buy things we love and hope people love them too. We’ve made some mistakes, but for the most part it’s been a good philosophy for us.”
McInturff adds the Diva aims to offer items not available in typical chain stores: jewelry, hand bags, scarves, a small baby line including clothes and gifts, greeting cards, and especially home decor.
It may go without saying the store intends to fill a niche unique to the unusual flavor of Culver.
Says Braden, “I think there was a need in this town for a place like us because of so many people who come in on vacation or to their summer homes, or to see their children at the Academy, and would like to have some place to do some shopping. When you’re on vacation you don’t want to travel 50 miles to do something.”
“Culver is becoming more of a destination town for specifically the lake,” agrees McInturff. “The good restaurants and the shopping goes on top of that. People make a day or weekend or whole week out of it. They like to come in and walk around. (Along with the other specialty shops in downtown Culver), we give those people a place to stop in. When I go to Lake Michigan and spend the weekend, I like to go to the shops; I think that’s a common thread for people to look for when they come to small towns for the lakes. You want a place where they can look for something different they can’t find in a large store in their hometown.”
Even though they recognize the changes in Culver, McInturff and Braden know the ‘old’ Culver as well. They grew up on a farm seven miles south of town and attended Aubbeenaubbee High School (McInturff was part of the last graduating class there preceding the late 1960s school consolidation).
“Culver was my hangout,” she recalls. “When I was 14 or 15 years old, I would drive to Culver and cruise to the root beer stand, and hang out at the bowling alley.”
And response to the Diva has been positive, they say, from customers across the board.
“We had an excellent reception,” McInturff says of their debut three years ago. “Our first year was our best year.”
Not surprisingly in light of the economy, she notes the past two years have been “flat” for the shop, with neither great loss nor gain. Notably however, this year looks to be their best yet.
In addition to traffic from the lake, Academy, and out-of-town customer base — McInturff and Braden point out their “black Friday” has been, as is true of many Culver businesses, the summer season. The ladies say many local shoppers are discovering Diva is “not really some high-priced, over-the-top store,” and their Christmastime sales have been increasing. And word of mouth has helped to spread their customer base to surrounding communities such as Plymouth, Rochester, Knox, Argos, and even Warsaw.
Before the expansion, some of those customers, says Braden, would miss out on noticing some of their offerings, one of the reasons for this year’s expansion.
“There was a lot to see in that small space,” she explains, “a lot for them to take in.”
The decision to expand came about a year ago in November, particularly as holiday-themed items crowded the shelves of the Diva. Add the fact that the storefront just north has been empty for a year, and McInturff says she began exploring the notion of growing the store. That meant permission from Karst and cutting into the wall to create an opening, all while McInturff herself went through the chaos of buying a house in Culver and moving here full-time from Fort Wayne.
The response to the growth of the store has been overwhelmingly positive, say Braden and McInturff.
“People say, ‘We’re so glad you expanded. You’re keeping your presence and making it even better.’ They’re very, very positive. I’m very grateful for them. If it wasn’t for people coming in and buying, we wouldn’t be here.”
The added floor space has been dedicated primarily to home decor and seasonal items, but also allows more room for behind-the-scenes needs such as inventory and office space. McInturff credits Braden and the store’s other team member, Karen Beaver, with creation of window displays in the expansion, besides their many other duties at the store.
Braden and McInturff attribute the Diva’s success in the face of a less-than-successful economy to the uniqueness of Culver.
“We talk to other people in Fort Wayne and other communities,” McInturff says. “So many small shops have closed over the last two years. I think Culver is a different market; it was an untapped market.”