Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central: The ‘professional shopper’ with a background in public health

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  • Katie Rennie, right, owner of 25 Central in Northampton, helps regular customers Janna Darrow, left, of Sunderland and Anne Bergsten of Connecticut browsing in the Thornes Marketplace store. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Katie Rennie is the owner of 25 Central located in Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • 25 Central, located on the Main Street level of Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 1/31/2020 6:19:18 AM

Editor’s note: Some of you may remember a colorful profile of Meg Sullivan, the owner of Joe’s Cafe in Northampton, which ran in the Gazette last year. That piece, by Katherine Keenan, grew out of a nonfiction writing class at Smith College taught by journalist and author Susan Faludi. The collaboration was so successful (and fun), we decided to it again. Over the next few weeks, on this page, you will read a range of pieces written by students who took Faludi’s fall semester class, “Writing about Women and Gender,” which she describes as “an intensive creative nonfiction writing workshop, where students write articles on women and gender issues, culminating with a long, magazine-style story about a local woman or a gender issue in the greater Northampton area.” 

What ties this series together is the theme of women in business. (The exception is one piece that will run, soon, in the Health section.) Faludi said she was inspired to send students to interview women who work downtown after seeing the Historic Northampton exhibition “Making It on Main Street.”

For her students, “This was their first reporting assignment of the semester, and they descended on Main Street in teams of two to seek out intriguing women with a story to tell about their work lives,” Faludi said. The aim, she added, was to distill a rambling conversation into a taut piece that “captures the spirit of the encounter and the voice and personality of the subject.”

Brooke Hauser

Katie Rennie, owner of 25 Central

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I love telling everyone I’m a professional shopper. I really like figuring out who likes what and what I can order, you know … I think about each customer when I’m buying things. Like, “So-and-so would really like this.” I wind up setting up little ideas like that in my head, like, “Janice is totally going to like this.” Then, like, “Well, this reminds me of Amy.” Things like that. I enjoy showing off the new stuff to certain people, or I’ll say to a customer, “I thought of you when I ordered this.” I love shopping. It’s in my blood.

I find the really neat thing about 25 Central — and one of the reasons why I’ve always loved it — is there’s literally something for everybody. Generations of family can come in, the granddaughter could get a headband or a necklace, then the daughter could get a skirt and a dress, and grandma could get something, too. You get to express yourself in so many different ways and mix and match things all the time. It’s really fun to pick out the stuff for different categories of people but have it all complement each other. It’s not just for young people. It’s not just for old people. It’s for all people.

I started working for the company after I  gradu ated from UMass, and I quickly moved up    to   managing and buying. I really loved what I  wa s doing; it was just a really good fit. And it was with my best friend at the time. So, we both got to do this together.

And then, the previous owners, Paul and Sheree Bloomberg, were looking to retire. Instead of closing, they wanted to be able to pass on this beautiful legacy they had created to someone who is just as excited about it as they were. So that’s when I came in! I’m just over three-and-a-half years as the owner.

I have a degree in public health with a focus on women’s studies, and I was planning on becoming a midwife. So, I really just had this job as something in-between. But it came really naturally to me. I really enjoyed it. And I think it’s still a public health service, making people feel good about themselves.

We never did an official big grand reopening or anything when I first took over so as not to scare people thinking, like, “This new young girl is going to come in and change everything!” No, I’m going to keep it exactly the same! And you’ll never even know that somebody else took over. I was able to carry the same image and idea that the previous owners had, and, like, bring it to the next level or carry it on to 2019 and beyond. 25 Central has been in business for almost 30 years; I wasn’t going to change their baby.

Everyone thinks that the previous owners are my parents. No, they’re like my parents. The first time I met them, I asked how many kids they had: 241 of you! — like, all the past employees. I really appreciated that kind of relationship. They just always treated us so well and took such good care of everybody. The previous owner, the husband, still comes in two days a week to work with me. And I can call up the wife, Sheree, and ask her anything, too. So there has been a really good support system with them.

Whereas they managed and ran the place together, husband and wife, I hired my mom, Deb, and my little sister, Molly. So we went from one family dynamic to another; it’s been kind of neat. They both manage with me. My sister is definitely the artistic director, so she’ll do all the mannequins, and she’ll help with all our graphics. My mom helps with employee management and the customer-service aspect.

It’s fun because we all have our own style and opinions on things that we like. So that, I think, helps with keeping the merchandise so diverse for everybody.

Currently, we have two other women working with us, one of whom is full time. Everybody’s doing different things at different stages in their life; that’s also a nice mix. I can get everyone’s opinion, like, “What do you think about these shoes?” “Should I get this?” “What are you noticing is selling really well?”

We’re all carrying the same weight and helping each other out, which is cool.

That’s always been one of the models here — that everybody does everything. So, you know, maybe the other women who are trained will be processing the shipment, helping the customers, doing the register, taking out the recycling. You don’t feel like you’re not equipped to answer a certain question.

There’s so many aspects of this job that I really love. We go to a big show at the Javits Center in New York for buying … We do it four or five times a year, maybe six. It’s so much fun. I always have liked checking out the new looks.

We were just there the first weekend of January. That’s where you see all the merchandise. And, you know, we have our list of the regular people we go see. Some of what we ordered at this last show was for right away, but also we ordered for spring and summer. So, you’re getting the forecast to see what’s coming; it’s pretty cool. Tons of vendors go. Every once in a while, we’ll find [a new brand or vendor] who we’re like, ‘Ooh, that jumped out at us.” Or, “Let’s try some of that.” A lot of people from all over town (Northampton) will be there, too. You kind of walk by and wave at each other.

25 Central has always been in Thornes. It started as a jewelry kiosk; the couple had started making jewelry, and it really took off. They expanded from jewelry to accessories like scarves, hats, mittens and gloves. And then, years later, they added the clothing aspect to it. There were three stores originally, Black Orchid Jewelry, Details for accessories, and 25 Central for clothing. Then, about 10 years ago, this current space opened up, and we consolidated everything into one.

We always say location is everything — it’s such prime real estate here. We don’t currently have an active website. In the online realm, you’re such a little fish in a really big sea. But we’ve recently started transitioning more to social media, with Facebook and Instagram, getting a lot of people that way. People like that idea of shopping local and small.

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