In the home décor and accessories store troVe, owner Julie Ahlberg has merged three of her passions: paint, anything with rust and a good story.
The 7,000-square-foot Portage store, at 8639 Portage Road, sells high-quality Annie Sloan Chalk Paint, offers painting classes and rents space to vendors who fill their booths with plenty of those oxidized items that Ahlberg enjoys as well as repurposed pieces.
“It’s rare that I sit down,” she says with a laugh. “I am working hours and hours, but it’s my business. It’s what I love.”
A year ago, Ahlberg bought the store, then called Consigned Design, and changed the store’s name to troVe. She had worked for 25 years in the financial industry, spending the last five years of her career as a client services associate at Sanford Financial Services in Portage. Though finance wasn’t her passion, Ahlberg says it served a purpose and perfectly positioned her for business ownership.
“Had I not started in the financial industry, I couldn’t run the store the way I am now,” Ahlberg says. “I needed those years of maturity and experience.”
That experience also gave her the backbone to make hard choices, she says, such as turning away vendors whose items don’t fit with her vision for troVe and making sure that current vendors meet expectations, including coming in at least twice per month to keep their items fresh, moving items around regularly and removing seasonal pieces in a timely manner.
Ahlberg rents space to 40 vendors who sell antiques, furniture and specialty handcrafted items. For instance, there’s a railroad cart transformed into a coffee table, a wreath created from burlap, and homemade wooden rustic shutters. Vendors typically occupy 8-by-8-foot spaces, although one recently expanded into a 15-by-8 space.
Ahlberg’s criteria for vendors and their wares is pretty simple. “People say to me, ‘Well, what are you looking for?’ I say, ‘Something unique. Something that’s not here yet.’”
Of course, a bit of rust doesn’t hurt. Ahlberg, who describes her own style as rustic chic, says she has always been drawn to rusty items. She likes the color of rust and how it changes from brown to orange to gray. Rusty items offer another attraction — they’ve aged and therefore hold a story. The story potential gets Ahlberg’s mind spinning: Was this item in a barn? Is it from down South? Did a farmer use it? Ahlberg says she loves discovering an item’s history.
“I often have customers who ask the story behind a piece or if I know where it came from. It’s fun when I know the story and I’m able to share it with a customer.”
One of the first new things Ahlberg decided to carry after purchasing the business was Annie Sloan Chalk Paint, which quickly became a top seller at troVe. The paint, created by designer and artist Sloan, is sold by more than 1,400 establishments in 40 countries, and troVe is the only store in Kalamazoo County carrying it. Ahlberg says that the product pretty much sells itself. One of the benefits of this paint is that it can be applied to any surface without the need to prep the surface by sanding, priming or stripping. In order to carry the paint, Ahlberg underwent a lengthy application process. After approval, Ahlberg says, she had to receive training on the product.
“To be a stockist for Annie Sloan Chalk Paint I had to go to New Orleans for training,” Ahlberg says. “She’s very serious about this, which is good. It was also a big investment for me.”
While there, Ahlberg learned a variety of paint techniques, which she passes on to customers through classes at troVe three times a month. Each class lasts approximately two to three hours. Currently Ahlberg offers a basics class, in which she teaches smooth finish, rustic finish, two-color distressing and crackle finish. She plans to eventually add advanced classes and hopes to provide classes for children.
Ahlberg has a number of business inspirations but admits she got great advice from former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom she heard speak at a leadership event. Powell believes in placing people in positions where they can do what they love, Ahlberg says. Since Ahlberg wanted to focus on the creative side of troVe, she hired a social media expert and an accountant to handle those jobs.
Above all, Ahlberg seeks to create and maintain a fun atmosphere at troVe. Zoie, her 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, helps with this mission by calmly sauntering over to welcome customers upon their arrival. “I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, ‘Is Zoie here?’ She’s a great shop dog,” says Ahlberg.
So far, Ahlberg’s efforts have paid off. Last year troVe’s sales rose 38 percent, she says, and this year sales are already up 50 percent. And a recent comment by a customer made that success all the more sweet. Ahlberg is a fan of the HGTV show Fixer Upper, in which the owners of Magnolia Homes, Chip and Joanna Gaines, breathe new life into rundown properties. Ahlberg especially appreciates Joanna Gaines’ designs, which, she says, are “old, new, greenery, antiques, rustic and farmhouse chic blended together.” Recently, when a customer came into troVe and exclaimed that it was “the Magnolia Farms of Portage!” Ahlberg was elated.
“It made my mouth open wide, and I smiled from ear to ear,” Ahlberg says. “The words literally took my breath away.”