A hobby that began when Eugenia Sparks and her husband, Tom, retired, celebrated its 10th anniversary this month. Irish Rose, an Irish-themed gift boutique on Walnut Street in Milford, has become a mainstay in downtown.
“When we retired, we decided to participate in craft shows in the local area,” Eugenia said when asked how Irish Rose got its start. “We met some wonderful friends who encouraged us to expand out and sell at Irish festivals, so we transitioned to sell everything with an Irish or Irish-related theme.”
Eugenia explained that their travels took them along the East Coast and as far west as Ohio. Planning to show at the largest Irish festival in the United States in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2013, the Sparks’ learned that Tom was suffering from a very rare adrenal cancer and he passed away in May.
“Before his passing, we discussed having a storefront,” Eugenia said. “So, I made a decision to go forth and open a shop in his memory. Irish Rose was a name we talked about. It was so appropriate because Tom gave me a dozen red roses on different occasions throughout our 49 years of marriage. My son, Tom, Jr., who resides in Milford, suggested I open my shop in Milford. Tom was so instrumental in getting the contacts to do the renovations as well as handling several items himself. I couldn’t have done it without him. The location at 42 North Walnut Street was available so I signed the contract with the landlord. Two years ago, I expanded the shop into 40 North Walnut Street.”
The biggest challenge Eugenia faced in opening her storefront was advertising. She connected with the Southern Delaware Explorer, the Chronicle and RAK Advertising which she says brought people to her shop, but she felt something was missing. Eugenia now has someone who posts photos or videos on the Irish Rose Facebook page and believes social media has made a difference in sales.
“The biggest reward has come from my customers,” Eugenia said. “Sharing life experiences has been so heartwarming. I am so impressed by how many know so much about their Irish heritage. Lately, there has been an influx of people who are “first-time” visitors. This also allows me to share info about other businesses in Milford.”
Eugenia says she has a wonderful gentleman in her life, Don Harris, who lost his wife at the same time she lost Tom.
“They had a country gift shop and he was closing and selling out displays,” Eugenia said. “So his displays came to my shop, needless to say, things developed, and we got engaged two years later. So nice to be in love twice in your life. What are th odds I would meet someone who knows a gift shop operation? God does work in mysterious ways.”
COVID presented another challenge for Irish Rose as the pandemic led the governor to close all non-essential businesses on March 13, 2020 with St. Patrick’s Day, one of her busiest selling days, occurring on March 17. Eugenia adhered to all the COVID regulations and guidelines.
“Fortunately, we were able to keep busy taking inventory and rearranging the shop,” Eugenia said. “But it was definitely a lost year for sales.”
Eugenia has advice for anyone who wants to start a business similar to hers.
“My advice would be to research your customer base and their buying habits,” Eugenia said. “I knew I was going to be the only Irish shop in Delaware as two previous owners in the state retired. There is quite a large population of folks who are Irish or who claim some Irish heritage who reside in the First State.”
Another bit of advice when operating a business is that owners must be aware of the hours necessary to run a successful retail outlet.
“Your day does not stop at closing time,” Eugenia said. “There is paperwork, pricing items, swapping out displays for various holidays, etc. etc. And there are things you cannot anticipate like illness, doctor visits, funerals. You have to try to make arrangements to keep open if these occur. Most importantly, keep your posted hours of operation and have coverage if you must close early.”
Her final bit of advice is to have patience.
“Success does not happen overnight,” she explained. “It does take a few years to get established. Sustaining your passion and keeping the excitement of running the business you started is so rewarding.”
Irish Rose, located at 42 North Walnut Street in Milford is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 AM until 5 PM and on Saturday from 10 AM until 4 PM. They are closed Sunday and Monday. You can also find her on Facebook by visiting https://www.facebook.com/irishrosegiftshop.
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