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LIVING AT HOME: enter as strangers, leave as friends SERENDIPITY

A bright and whimsical little girls' room.1 / 2
A rustic, cozy and fun little boys' room2 / 2

There's just something about the word "serendipity" that's appealing. Maybe it's the way it bounces off the tongue like textual bubble wrap. Or, simply, that it means a surprising reward. We all love those, right? Which is why a store named Serendipity tells us, "Come in and find what you're not looking for, but what you really, really need!"

Duluth has such a store and yes it is named Serendipity, and it's worth a visit. Appropriately located in a 102-year-old two-story house in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood, Serendipity has an authentic homey feel to it. A sign above the front door reads "Enter as strangers, leave as friends."

"We're on a first-name basis with many of our customers, and it is not unusual for some of them to bring in fresh baked cookies and muffins," says Gayle Healy, who owns and operates Serendipity with her mother, Shirley Johnson.

People who visit Serendipity are not exactly shoppers, but more like wanderers. Relaxed, cup of coffee in hand, they explore the rooms, not looking for anything specific, but on the lookout for that one item they want. "As one customer told me, Serendipity is their 'Happy Place,' not a place she wants to be rushed," says Healy.

Slowing customer traffic to a comfortable stroll may be the various rooms that each offer something different. Healy says the themed rooms just sort of happened as the shop was put together, and lend themselves to the items they carry. For example, the original nursery on the second floor displays baby and children's lines of clothing, furniture, gifts and accessories. On the first floor, the dining room offers a wide assortment of tableware, wine accessories, napkins and linens. The one bathroom in the house presents a sort of revolving display of eclectic items. The wooden floors creak as customers roam the halls and rooms. Occasionally someone laughs, or there is a whispered exclamation at finding something exciting. Always nearby are Healy and Johnson, ready with an answer or friendly chitchat.

Serendipity was a dream in the making for the mother and daughter. Johnson spent many years helping at estate sales and working in an antique store after retiring from the real estate business. Healy worked more than 30 years in retail, with 22 years as a visual merchandise specialist at Maurices. Once her two sons began high school she decided it was time to take her professional life in a different direction. Over the years, she and her mother had bought different items each liked, eventually filling two storage buildings. Two years later, they bought the century-old house and, with the help of family and friends, opened in October 2006. While it's been rewarding for the two, they admit it's nothing like they've done before.

"Running a business like this takes up so much time," says Healy. "A typical work day is nine to 12 hours. It's much more physical than I ever thought it would be."

As expected in such a business arrangement, their age difference is reflected in the merchandise. Healy's taste is more funky and trendy while Johnson's is more conservative, with a fun flare. When they first opened the store the inventory was mostly vintage, retro, lodge and casual chic home furnishings. However, Johnson says that changed quickly when they realized customers were looking for out-of-the-ordinary seasonal and garden items, gifts, tablewares, greeting cards and more. Even with more than 60 lines of merchandise, Healy and Johnson are plying the trade shows for new companies with the next exciting nicknack.

"Believe it or not, the most off-beat, unique pieces are usually the quickest items to go," says Healy. "We really feel the reason our business has been so successful is the mix of old and new; something for everyone."

Both women say their relationship shows through in the way they work side-by-side in every aspect of the business. Healy says their age difference has many advantages in buying, selling and dealing with customers.

"Since we have a diverse clientele, ranging from young teens to great grandmothers, we feed off each other to be sure everyone's tastes are met," says Healy. "We have always had the utmost respect for each other's opinions and values. We tell our customers this all the time, but it's true. We've never had a fight in the 47 years of my life. My mother is truly the most amazing person I have ever met. I would never have started this business without her."

Serendipity is located at 4407 East Superior Street.