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DOMitp's Pauline Karwowski on Running a Seasonal-Focused Store Year-Round

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    NEWSLETTERS

    If you've got a tension toothache from the holidays, imagine running a business that's usually only at the forefront of people's minds only during this time of year. For some, Black Friday isn't one of the last hurrahs of the sales year but instead the blast of a starter pistol. Take DOMitp, for example: It's one of the city's longest standing staple stores at the Christkindlmarket, the traditional German-American holiday market in the Daley Plaza. The store specializes in hand-blown ornaments inspired by landmarks like Millennium Park and the Chicago Theater, but it's also just one of six locations for the family-run business. Its latest, in Woodfield Mall, opened over the weekend, and there are other locations sprinkled throughout like on Belmont or Harlem. So, how do you keep your business not only afloat, but also relevant not just during the most wonderful time of the year, but the rest of it? I gave Pauline Karwowski from DOMitp a call to find out.

    Just to start off, what is your title with the store?

    Pauline Karwowski: You know, I don't know what my title is. It's a family business. My parents own it, and I guess if I had a title it would be director of human resources. I do a lot of hiring and PR work.

    Is that intentional?

    Pauline Karwowski: Yeah, absolutely. I sweep up and manage the registers. We do everything.

    Everybody does everything.

    Pauline Karwowski: Everybody does everything.

    Why do you think that is the case with family businesses?

    Pauline Karwowski: We just take great pride in everything. I have a 10-year-old son that on the weekends begs to come and work on the register.

    How do you keep a seasonal store running year-round?

    Pauline Karwowski: Throughout the year, we have a lot of seasonal products for Easter and that is our second busiest time of the year. We started incorporating new merchandise to keep us running throughout the year. It started out in 1985, my father purchased a True Value on Belmont and it was just a hardware store and when we were growing up my mom took an interest in the business as well and started importing products from Poland and kind of putting them next to hammers and nails at the hardware store. It started evolving into more of an import store rather than a hardware store. Now it's not a True Value anymore. It's still predominantly a hardware store, but we started opening up more locations for our products. Now we're predominantly everywhere with no hardware at all. Now clothing and accessories and it's kinda evolved into what we are now.

    Has there been anything you evolved into that didn't make sense for you guys?

    Pauline Karwowski: No, definitely. We've taken lots of risks. Our store on Halsted in a popular shopping district right across from huge national companies, and we did horribly there. We decided to start importing more glassware and vases and lots of really expensive handblown glass and we had horrible business there. We closed after a year, but we took that risk and the connections we made in Eastern Europe with the glass companies evolved into us designing our own glass ornaments. Had we not taken that risk ever we would've never made those connections with those companies and we started from that. They're also all family businesses, primarily in Poland, and those connections allowed us to create and develop our product line of ornaments, specifically the Chicago ones, that we designed by ourselves.

    What's the most recent addition or shift to the company you've done?

    Pauline Karwowski: We opened our Woodfield location on Saturday, and we have the whole section of ornaments. The majority of products at that location is clothing from Poland. It's the first time they've ever hit the market in the United States. They're not available anywhere except for our store. It's these new designers that are in their twenties and thirties that have not really grown up in the Communist regime, per se. They are full of great ideas and innovation, and so I'm looking at the clothing line right now, and it's beautiful, it's well-made and it's new. It's definitely new to the market. It's telling because we're right next to Nordstrom's, and people would return the dresses they purchased at Nordstrom's and come back to purchase what we have. It was really telling for us because we didn't know if it was going to flop again like Halsted or if people were going to really enjoy what we were importing over, but we had a very, very busy weekend and the product line, specifically from Poland, is unique and different really unlike anything else that's out there. I don't know if it would work if we were in LA or New York, but because Chicago has such a huge Polish population, most of our clientele are somewhat Polish or their parents are, it keeps us going and we have a really great customer base.

    How do you identify a new avenue to explore and how do you gauge whether it's worthwhile as a company to do so?

    Pauline Karwowski: We appreciate and trust our clientele. They have suggested many things throughout the years.

    David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.