Though Scott Johnson employs a small staff, his most breadwinning salesperson might just be Audrey Hepburn. A likeness of the film icon, posed next to a sandwich board sign, stands outside Johnson’s Nicollet Mall shop every day, tempting passersby with chalked messages: “Fine handmade jewelry from Istanbul, Turkey”; “Essential oils sold here.”
For visitors, Hepburn is the first clue that Johnson’s shop — 919 Nicollet Mall, which until about four weeks ago was called O’Day Cache — is a little funkier than most Downtown retailers. The second clue is the merchandise that spills out onto the Mall on days when the weather’s nice: heavy stone gargoyles; statues of Eastern warriors; a parade of large, colorful animals made out of recycled metal.
At a time when Downtown retail-watchers are advocating loudly for unique, destination-worthy stores capable of competing with nearby suburbs (cough, Block E), Johnson is an interesting — if extreme — case study.
Most of his stuff comes from Asia. A modern day Marco Polo, Johnson ventures out East every year or so, hunting for exotic curiosities to bring back to his homeland. He’s got a dealer in China, a trusted source in Istanbul. This April, he’ll set off to Vietnam, where he says he’ll “be mostly scoping things out” — sniffing out leads for future shopping trips, keeping an eye out for raw materials for Jeromeo, his line of contemporary jewelry design.
The result is an exceptionally eclectic shop of curiosities. Aside from his one-off earring and necklace creations, Johnson’s currently pedaling a painted cabinet, once used an altar, from 1850s Tibet (“You can still see burn marks from where the incense fell”). He’s got rare Lampe Berger perfume burners from Paris for sale and a pair of Chinese woodcarvings from the 1650s, each made of camphor and depicting a mythological deer.
“The concept is things in this store are very seldom found,” he said. “That’s my whole business.”
And business is pretty good as of late. Pointing to a large penguin sculpture, made of recycled scrap metal from Mexico, Johnson said, “I must have sold 1,000 of those last year.”
Just before Christmas, he expanded, opening up a satellite shop in the skyway level of Gaviidae Common called Jeromeo. The idea was to chase down some of the foot traffic lost from Nicollet Mall during the winter months.
Then, on Feb. 1, Johnson officially changed the name of his Nicollet Mall shop to Jeromeo as well, consolidating both stores — and his jewelry design — under one brand. The name also more accurately reflects current ownership. Johnson first opened the Nicollet Mall location about five or six years ago with his friend Cindy O’Day. He’s says he not a “schedule-driven person” and doesn’t use calendars.
He says since 2008 or so, O’Day has stepped away to focus on the flagship O’Day Cache store in Fargo, ND.
Valentine’s Day was good, Johnson added, and he’s looking to expand internally at the Mall location, as well.
“I’ve been working on the idea of a tea shop [in the mezzanine] for a long time,” he said. “I feel like for retail, it’s always good to have some additional services that will keep people coming in the door.”
Still, Johnson’s no poster child for Downtown retail success. He describes operating on the Mall as “tough” and knows very well that better markets exist nearby. He cited Styled Life, a popular Nicollet Mall boutique that closed in 2009, consolidating into a second location in Edina’s Galleria.
“I don’t know if ‘flourishing’ is the word,” he said. “I’m holding my own. Honestly, I could probably do 10 times better if I was at the Mall of America. But that’s not me.”
Johnson, who currently has a condo in the Sexton Building in Elliot Park, has lived Downtown for almost three decades.
“I love Downtown. I wouldn’t move someplace else. It’s not convenient for me. I don’t drive. I walk everywhere. If I moved to the suburbs, I’d have to get a car. And I just don’t want all that.”
Nicollet Mall, he lamented, “is not the same as it used to be. It used to be more traveled, more user friendly. There’s not a lot out there compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
Asked what he’d like to see Downtown, Johnson fantasized about an official retail avenue, a sort of promenade of shopping.
“At least 100 times a year, people coming into the store ask me, ‘Where’s the shopping district? Is there any other shop like this Downtown?’”
For now, the 900 block of Nicollet remains an anchor of unique Downtown flavor. Jeromeo is bookended by the Dr. Seuss-obsessed Jean Stephen Gallery and the venerable James & Mary Laurie Booksellers. And Kieran Folliard’s Irish wonderland pub The Local sits on the corner.
But Johnson remains cautious about the city retail scene.
“I have the option to stay or not to stay,” he said. “I want to just test the waters.”
919 Nicollet Mall
Skyway level of Gaviidae Common, on the Neiman Marcus side