Something Special a family affair

PHOTOGRAPHER:
Nancy Blanchard, right, owns Something Special, a Johnstown store specializing in children’s clothing and gifts. Her daughter, Louanne VanNostrand, left, has worked there for 29 years and is now the manager. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

JOHNSTOWN — Nearly 30 years have passed since Nancy Blanchard suggested to her daughter that she come to work in her store.

Being on her payroll, Blanchard said, would be an improvement over the bank teller job Louanne VanNostrand hated. She promised that selling clothing and gifts for infants and children was more enjoyable.

“I said come in on a Saturday when you’re off from the bank,” Blanchard recalled recently.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to work for my mom,’” VanNostrand said, grinning, while inside that store, Something Special, at 14 W. Main St.

Mother and daughter were standing behind the front counter, the one that is shown inside Blanchard’s yearbook, Johnstown High School class of 1957, when it was used in another commercial setting. Countless retail sales have been transacted over its glass.

“After a few Saturdays, I started coming in more often,” VanNostrand said. “And I thought, yeah, this is more my speed. But I can’t believe it’s been that long. I mean, 1992?”

The two women have witnessed numerous changes over the last 348 or so months. They have made tweaks to the shop’s inventory, responding to shifting tastes and the arrival, as competitors, of box stores and online sellers.

Customers have provided the strongest evidence of time’s passage. It is a phenomenon more easily observed in this small community, when youngsters who were carried or toddled into the shop now enter with their own children. Previous consumers have become contemporary patrons.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people through the years,” VanNostrand said.

Something Special carries clothing for preemie boys and girls up to size 6x for girls, and 4-toddler for boys. Older ages are accommodated for the dresses and outfits worn by youngsters during religious services.

Dancewear, an important sales segment, runs from size 3 up to ladies size 2XL, with a large variety of tights.

“We’ve got a lot of great studios in town,” Blanchard said. “The dancewear has been wonderful for us.”

Assorted products from Melissa & Doug, including puzzles, games and dolls, are kept near the front of the store.

“They’re educational toys,” VanNostrand said. “They do amazing stuff. People just absolutely love it.”

Blanchard is the owner and she still keeps the store’s books, but VanNostrand now manages the business. Blanchard has been caring for her husband and VanNostrand’s father, Louis Blanchard, a survivor of brain cancer.

VanNostrand makes most of the buying decisions and is the only employee.

A year ago, COVID-19 forced Something Special to be closed from March until July, a gap of three months and two weeks. The pandemic interrupted what had been a period of solid sales, according to VanNostrand.

Trade resumed slowly after the reopening, but VanNostrand was pleased by the amount of business leading up to Christmas.

“It wasn’t fantastic,” she said, “but it was good.”

Mother and daughter have been working together since 1992, but Nancy Blanchard’s involvement with the business began seven years earlier – when she purchased Elaine’s Kiddie Wear on South Market Street.

“I was bored,” Blanchard said. “The kids were grown and I wanted something to do.”

Earlier negotiations to purchase a bridal shop in Gloversville had fallen through, a fate Blanchard now views as a blessing. She instead bought the Johnstown seller of children’s clothing and more.

The store had employees and a loyal customer base, and running the business cured the owner’s boredom.

Four years after she purchased Elaine’s Kiddie Wear, Blanchard’s landlord informed her he was going to repurpose her space for other uses. Blanchard gathered the store’s stock, its ancient mechanical cash register and the front display counter – the one shown in her high school yearbook but the one she clearly remembers seeing, in the 1950s, when a classmate’s father ran a photographic store at the same address – and moved it all around the corner to 14 W. Main St.

The new location would be owned rather than leased. Blanchard has found this to be a competitive advantage because of the unpredictable, cyclical nature of retailing.

“If I had to pay rent, I would be out of business,” she said.

Another change coincided with the store’s move. Blanchard had tired of being called “Elaine” by the patrons who assumed the proprietor was also the namesake. She was unsure of a new title until one night, getting ready for bed, she remembered the expression uttered by many browsers after they walked into the shop.

“They would say they were looking for something special as a gift,” Blanchard said. “I thought, we’ll name it ‘Something Special.’”

The store’s name guides the manager’s buying decisions. VanNostrand said she tries to add to the inventory items which aren’t easily found online or in box stores. One of her favorite suppliers is Ganz, whose plush animals, picture frames and other home decor offerings receive prominent placement near the front counter.

VanNostrand said she thinks Something Special has certain attributes that cannot be matched by discounters or online marketplaces.

“If we could get people to understand that we offer a service,” VanNostrand said. “We can help you choose a size. We’re interested in the customer, not just as somebody who’ll buy something, but who you are as a person. We spend time with you.”

By Paul Wager