Sometimes it just takes a change of scenery to figure out what you really want, who you really are …
Robin (Gantz) Smith grew up in Lancaster County and attended Donegal High School before entering the job field. Then came a brief detour in life - an eight-year stint in the St. Louis area working in the agriculture industry. It made sense for her, having grown up on a farm.
St. Louis is where she discovered her passion, her “true calling.”
“I was raised in Lancaster County where it seemed like everyone decorated this way,” she says, pointing to the various primitive, early American and rustic country décor items that fill a renovated tobacco warehouse in Maytown. “I always decorated this way, creating unique displays from well-worn treasures. It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest, that friends would ask me to decorate their homes and trees at Christmas, and I realized I might have a gift for this.”
Robin and her husband, Jeff, put that “gift” on display every day at Homestead Furnishings & Gifts, 161 South River Street (Route 743) in the village of Maytown. Located in a tobacco warehouse built in 1842, Homestead offers a quaint collection of primitive and farmhouse style furnishings, all sitting warmly on display to make you feel like you just walked into the holiday season itself.
And the holidays are when Homestead shines the brightest. From January through August, the store opens from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, but in November and December store hours expand to 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on Wednesday and Fridays. That leads up to one of their most anticipated events of the year – The Annual Thanksgiving Night Sale.
“Many customers and their families have made this a tradition,” Robin says. “We’re open from 6 p.m. to midnight. We began doing this seven years ago from a suggestion of an employee. The women enjoy coming out after spending all day cooking in the kitchen, while many of their husbands head off to deer camp.”
In fact, the entire Thanksgiving weekend is a festive event at the shop, including “Black Friday” and “Small Business Saturday,” which happens to fall on a fifth Saturday of the month this year.
“Any month that has a ‘Fifth Saturday,’ customers may spin our antique carnival wheel for a discount,” Robin says.
Another special tradition is always the first Sunday of December. Generally the shop is closed on Sundays, but once a year they make an exception and are open during the Marietta Candlelight Home Tour. This year, the tour is Sunday, Dec. 7, and shop hours are noon to 7 p.m.
The shop has a variety of holiday trimmings, including trees, berries, handcrafted Santas, snowmen, inspirational signs, period lighting and candles glowing. That warm, comfortable feeling reflects the time and effort Robin and Jeff invest into their passion, their life. While the main floor at Homestead displays the perfect décor, the basement displays the not-so-perfect array of boxes, wax, and the clutter of raw materials that it takes to create the perfect setting above.
“Knowing what I know now, looking back, this is a lot harder than you realize,” Robin says. “Every day is a new challenge. I remember going to stores like this that had been around for 25 years or more and thinking, they really have it going on, they have their act together. Now I know different.”
“Things are constantly changing and it is a never-ending struggle to balance your time, finances and priorities to pull it all off and make it seem like you know what you’re doing,” she laughs. “I truly have a greater appreciation for anyone who manages their own business.”
And she wouldn’t change a thing. In addition to seeing the new merchandise, that’s the passion that makes Homestead unique and keeps customers coming back time after time to visit. And Jeff and Robin remember them all, their former purchases and their decorating styles… even their dogs.
“The customers who return, that’s pretty much our main reward,” Jeff says. “Just tonight, we had a family in from Maryland who discovered us while visiting their daughter at Elizabethtown College. Their daughter has since graduated, but they still enjoy making the trek back to browse and visit.
“You get to know the customers,” Robin adds. “I have people tell me they had a bad day at work or a bad report from a doctor’s visit, and they just needed to stop by for a little ‘therapy’ on the way home. That’s what it’s all about for us, providing a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere where one can forget their worries and feel good, even if it’s just for a brief few minutes, before going back to the realities of the day.”
That’s why the business tagline reads, “Inspiration for the heart and home.”
Just like in St. Louis, Robin still enjoys offering decorating tips to anyone who asks. They describe their homes, often bringing pictures of mantles and tables that need a little sprucing up. Robin obliges by setting up her vision for the decorating theme, using the counter of the store to show them first-hand how to arrange and group the items.
“A person’s home should reflect their personality and inspire their senses. I love when customers come back and show me pictures of what they have done with the items they purchased.”
Robin still gets requests to decorate homes and trees for the holidays, and enjoys going out and doing room enhancements for customers, blending their current items with new whenever time allows. However, after Robin and Jeff spend time with their son, Trey, 11, and daughter, Elsie, 10, most of their extra time is spent making and fulfilling candle orders in the basement of Homestead.
That’s where their dream started on a whim just two weeks before they were married in 2000. After running The Candlebox, a small shop out of their home in Elizabethtown, and purchasing candles from a local company, the owners of the candle company presented Robin and Jeff with an offer to buy the candle business.
“(Jeff said), ‘That would be fun, we should make candles,’ Robin says, as Jeff laughs. “My original plan was to work from our house and be a stay-at-home mom. That’s kind of a joke now, because I feel like I haven’t really been ‘home’ in 14 years.”
In 2000, Robin and Jeff formed the CandleSmiths, the wholesale candle business that now fills the basement at Homestead. They hand-pour tens of thousands of candles each year, including their signature floating star candles, with each fragrance and color uniquely created. These candles are shipped daily to other retail shops all across the United States and Canada.
In 2010 they left their Mount Joy location, a large barn, and purchased and renovated the former tobacco warehouse in Maytown to set up shop. The building itself is as much a part of the Homestead allure as the wares it houses, including an original freight elevator that sits right in the middle of the main display floor.
They split their time between the wholesale candle business, where Luann Leeds helps Robin with packaging and shipping and Neil Bailey assists Jeff with candle manufacturing and general maintenance, and the retail Homestead shop, where Missy Witgenstein works her “magic” while unpacking, pricing and displaying the merchandise, as well as providing customer service.
Jeff & Robin both agree they could not begin to handle the daily operations without their family and employees. Robin is grateful for her bookkeeper, Joan Underkoffler, who keeps her organized and gets the bills paid. And of course, they salute their parents, who so willingly care for their children when they are working the many long hours required to manage a business that fits their passion to inspire others through design and décor.
“This takes a lot of faith,” Robin says. “We wouldn’t be here without the many people who believe in us; our family, employees, customers and friends, banks and business associates who have supported us both financially and emotionally through the years. Being in business is like a rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs, but we believe God always places the right people in your life to ride along side and get you over the bumps. I have a friend who painted a sign for me that says; ‘Be grateful for the doors of opportunity and for the people who oil the hinges.’”
Robin and Jeff make sure that the doors at Homestead always open up to a feeling of warmth, inspiration and candle aromas that stir the senses of past memories and the beginnings of new traditions to come … and hope that the hard work and passion they put in behind the scenes every day can lead to a good experience for all who enter.
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