Lea Semple and Kimberly Perkins
are Elysian Fields
Theirs is a Sarasota success store since the store opened November 16, 1991. Lea designed its space and does its buying, while Kim oversees finances. The partnership seems like the perfect right brain / left brain combination. Judging by the popularity the store enjoys, the combination works!
It could be said that what first brought them together was the lowly but ubiquitous Florida mosquito. And from such an auspicious start would come a friendship as well as a successful business venture known in Sarasota by the name Elysian Fields.
Quiet and thoughtful and hardly the banner-waving type, Lea Semple had just moved from California with her children and was horrified to see planes over her house spraying pesticides to control mosquitos. Then living in Collier County, she was "appalled" at the amount and the way the chemicals were applied. "It looked like Pearl Harbor," she recalled of the frequent fly-overs.
The letters to the editor increased, as did TV and print profiles on Lea. "Lea was not real popular," Kim explains, while Lea adds, "Interviews are very hard for me." The two researched and read about the chemicals used and found "the more we read, the scarier it became." Nonetheless, they were successful in raising the consciousness of regulators who previously had the view that more was best in terms of applying poisons to control mosquitoes.
Partly due to their efforts, not only were less chemicals applied in future sprayings, but in some areas stopped completely. Laws reflected a new awareness that the chemicals were not, as one official put it, "no more toxic than table salt."
Lea and her family moved to Sarasota and she concentrated on being a full-time mom. Kim went on to own and run a nursing agency. She, too, moved to Sarasota in 1990, and the two continued talking about the idea they'd had since 1987 - buying land and creating a retreat center. In 1988 they placed ads in the Yellow Pages but with no address - just a phone number that rang in either Kim's or Lea's garage.
Year after year they'd renew the ad with its hopeful "Opening Soon" message, rotating who would pay the bill one more time. Realizing they'd better open or else "look like flakes," they took the plunge. On November 16, 1991, Elysian Fields opened its doors.
By running the ads, they gained names and addresses of like-minded people - some 500 people - who were waiting for Elysian Fields to open. Amazingly, they did no market research. "It was all intuitive," Lea notes, adding, "it never occured to us it wouldn't work." Others weren't so optimistic. Their location, in the old Snelling Plaza that has a Steak and Ale and the Village Inn on opposite ends was what some called "retail suicide." But they were determined to offer what Lea calls "a first-class gift store that means something... that doesn't just offer doodads."
They definitely don't do doodads at Elysian Fields. There's an assortment of jewelry, gems, crystals, personal care items, candles, candle holders and chimes. Their greeting cards are decidedly non-Hallmark and beautiful. The book and magazine area (there are over 7000 book titles in stock) takes up a large part of the store and they've added rental tapes and videos, too. The back corner contains the children's section, complete with tables and chairs for children to use while their parents shop.
The store's look is not post-hippie or pretentious but rather subdued and even comforting. But it was anything but subdued when they first opened. They both laugh at the memory of that day. For one thing, the books that they had wanted so much to have didn't arrive on time. "We had all these beautiful book shelves but no books to put there." Some 20 people helped participate in "utter chaos" until Lea sent them home. She stayed all night, organized the store, left at 7 a.m. to go home, took a shower, and returned at 10 a.m.
Lea began her career as an artist, adding 20 years of experience in retail along the way. Her creative brushstrokes are evident in the store's design and layout, while her office contains samples of her artwork - a multi-media array of paintings and sculpture. Elysian Fields was her first experience designing and creating a store from scratch. Raised in Europe, she brings a different sensisibility to things like the toy selection, choosing what she calls "organic toys" not usually found elsewhere and that require children to use their imaginations.
Her partnership with Kim seems like a perfect right brain/left brain combination. Kim's a life-long entrepreneur, having owned a variety of businesses from a nursing agency to a cleaning service to a telecommunications company that created the first 900 psychic line. She manages the finances, does some buying, and handles personnel. It was Kim who, as a partner in a company called David Lowell and Associates, negotiated to buy Elysian Fields from her partners. She and Lea purchased the store in July of 1990 and are the store's only owners. Kim's creativity can be seen in Elysian Field's newsletter "The Rune" for which she writes an in-depth and uplifting column each issue.
The staff numbers six full-time and six part-time. They rely heavily on the sales manager, Annabeth Watts (also Kim's sister), who manages the store and its sales associates. The majority of the Elysian Fields' employees are moms, and they work with them on scheduling their hours. One woman, for example, comes in early so she can leave at 2:30 to pick up her son while another who home-schools her children comes in at 1 p.m. Employees "fill in the gaps" with each other, and they allow some flexibility with schedules and emergencies. "It's okay to leave early sometimes - it's normal here and it's not abused," says Lea. Besides, she adds, "Employees can't do their work without feeling good."
They know how it is to raise children and work because between them they have five children. Kim's three sons are Jonathan, 12; Arthur, 15; and Matt, 17; while Lea has two daughters Sarah, 8; and Amy, 12. While their jobs are not the 100 to 120 hours a week they were, there are times when either Kim or Lea needs to be alone to get things done, and they'll take turns watching each other's children.
In addition to the store, there's the LifePath Center where Deborah Williams, Stephanie Beachem, Wendy Croze and Kathleen Horne offer everything from massage therapy to psychotherapy. The Center also has classrooms and a reading room while offering psychic, tarot and astrology readings on a daily basis. Wendy oversees Elysian Fields extensive class offerings.
Speculation about the store has been consistent since its opening. Many think it is part of a chain or franchise - its neither. The only other Elysian Fields sighting was a holiday pushcart in Southgate Mall. They're not moving. Publix chose Crossroads Shopping Center just to their north and thus Elysian Fields is staying put - for now unless their landlord sells the building. Regardless, they just came off another successful holiday season and, according to Kim, sales were just under $1,000,000 for 1994.
A look at the store's guest book reveals a good bit about the typical Elysian Fields buyer. Many are from the area and travel from as far away as Tampa and Naples to shop. Their comments are similar, ranging from the sublime "Blessings," "I love this store," to the less profound "Smells nice." Lea likes to read the guest book because "it brings me back to center and reminds me how worthwhile this is." Kim has done informal customer profiles, finding that most of their clientele are women (67 percent) and repeat shoppers.
But statistics don't make a store and, as in many businesses, success depends on a good partnership. "We have complete and utter trust in each other," Lea comments on their relationship. "Kim's a fantastic entrepreneur. She's really good at starting businesses." As a person and friend, Lea speaks of Kim's "tremendous heart. She's someone who sees deeply into things and comes from the heart - even in business." Kim also speaks highly of her partner. "She's wonderful. We make a good team even though we're very different." To her, things work because they provide each other with "a great balance." If one feels strongly about something, they go with it. In that way they've never had a situation where "we're going in opposite directions." Obviously not.