There is a unique pleasure in finding the perfect gift.
It’s a feeling of satisfaction Stuart Kern, 84, knows well – he’s spent more than 20 years traveling the world in search of timeless treasures.
Her gift shop, Evelyn and Harriette’s, Oley, is the product of that hunt.
The store’s shelves are lined with trinkets – traditional clothing, artwork, ceramics, maps, jewelry, puzzles, toys and more – all different, but sharing a similar quality.
“A lot of (giftware) is based on gimmicks or trends. We avoid that,” Kern said. “We focus on things that have lasting value.”
Unlike big-box retailers who focus on volume sales, Evelyn and Harriette’s sources from small producers and artisans often overlooked by the whims of mass consumer preferences, Kern said.
“We deal directly with many of these manufacturers,” Kern said. “Some of them, we know them personally. We love them for their quality; they take pride in what they produce, they don’t just turn up the volume.
He said half the fun of being in the business is the research: going to trade shows and researching items in person.
“We buy very little online because we want to see the product, we want to see the quality, we want to know the story behind it,” Kern said. “If an item doesn’t have a story behind it – where it came from and what it’s about – well, that’s just stuff. We’re not selling anything.
Kern’s giftware philosophy stems from the tastes of the boutique’s namesakes: Evelyn Choquette and Harriette Chamberlain, the mothers of Kern and his wife, Annesley, the boutique’s co-owner.
“Both ladies loved beautiful things and worked on a budget, so they had to find beautiful things that weren’t expensive,” Kern said.
The store began when a former boiler room behind the Kerns’ former manufacturing business was opened as a showroom for furniture.
“Of course, if you’re going to show a table, you need something on it – tablecloths, candle holders, things like that… next thing you know, we had enough items for a gift shop,” Kern said.
The showroom officially became a gift shop on November 1, 2001.
“Evelyn was 94 when we opened the doors, she had been a retailer all her life, so she loved the place,” Kern noted. “She would go over there and run a shop.”
Maintaining tradition is another motivating factor for Kern; he said the store often sells items that become heirlooms.
“We even hear from people whose parents gave them something in 2008, and they’re in our store saying, ‘My parents gave me this and that’s how I remember them’. , Kern said.
Securing their niche in the giftware scene has also given Evelyn and Harriette the leeway to track down certain items for their customers.
He said a customer was on a cruise in Denmark and came across a rack of postcards so beautiful he never forgot them.
“We tracked that one, and as far as I know, we’re the only store in the United States that carries that line of postcards,” Kern said.
Other unique offerings from the store include a range of handcrafted Polish pottery, as well as hand-woven scarves and hats by Mucros Weavers in Ireland.
“Some of the scarves are made on looms that are over 200 years old,” Kern said. “People love them because the quality exceeds anything on the market here.”
Toys also hold a special place in the Kerns’ hearts – and on Evelyn and Harriette’s shelves.
Kern said he believes play teaches, and if a toy does play for a child, then nothing is gained.
“We are stealing the creativity and imagination of young people,” Kern said. “Before, they would sit and stack a bunch of blocks, and the blocks would fall and they would learn something and stack them differently.”
To keep that creativity alive, Kern says her store offers toys that encourage hands-on play, including STEM kits that work without push buttons or batteries, and alphabet blocks in 26 different languages.
Customers also crave that underlying sense of tactile discovery, Kern said.
He said the need to experience a product in person is why stores like Evelyn and Harriette are successful, even in the era of one-click ordering.
“I think we’re seeing a certain backlash (online retail),” Kern said, “people are saying, ‘Wait, this (product) isn’t what I thought it was.’ They come into a store like us, and they can pick something up and look at it, smell it, whatever.
Kern said he hoped to continue directing Evelyn and Harriette for as long as he was physically able.
“I’m not one of those people who wants to build something and throw it in a landfill,” Kern said. “A truly meaningful gift is one that says, ‘You are special,’ and we strive to be the source of those special, meaningful, quality gifts.”