Follow Your Heart

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The success story of Ivy Cottage Collections

You can’t miss Ivy Cottage Collections on Cary Parkway, complete with cupola and cheery pink porch rockers.

A perennial favorite in Cary Magazine’s readers-choice Maggy Awards, the shop is a gathering place for all things beautiful, and home base to the residential and commercial interior design work of owner Lisa Allen.

Love brought Lisa Allen to Cary, where she put her education and big-city training to work by launching Ivy Cottage Collections, a cupola-topped fixture on Cary Parkway. “Ivy Cottage is my second career, but it’s where I should have been all along,” she says. “When it comes to clientele base, I couldn’t have been dropped in a better place on this planet.”

As Allen celebrates 20 years of success, we sat down with her to learn how, and why, she does it.   

NP: You’ve lived in New York, Boston and Chicago. You’ve held regional- and national-level sales and marketing positions with Brach’s and Clorox. How’d you find your way to Cary?

LA: I did well in those positions, but I didn’t love it. My mind was there, but not my heart. In Boston I bought my first house, a $60,000 bungalow, and tiled, wallpapered and painted the whole thing by myself. I just absolutely loved it, and discovered I was good at it.

Later, in 1993, I was living in Chicago and dating my now-husband, Jim, when he called to say he had bought a house in Preston in Cary. I’d never heard of it. And he’d never mentioned his passion for golf. I told my friends, ‘Well, I really liked him, but I guess that’s that.’

I visited Cary a few times and it was beautiful, but I knew I’d be restless in a smaller town. When we decided to get married I told Jim, ‘The trade-off is that I’m going to open my own business.’ He’s always believed in it and supported my dream. Ivy Cottage is my second career, but it’s where I should have been all along.

You have a degree in marketing and business administration, and double-majored in art. What was it like, launching a business?  

Ivy Cottage Collections opened in 1995 as a 1,000-square-foot gift shop at Preston Corners. Preston was already well developed then, but there was no place to go for home furnishings. We expanded three times. People kept bringing in swatches, asking for design help, so I went back to school to study interior design.

It was really hard. Our kids were 3 and 1, we were in the middle of building a house, and I was opening a second location in North Hills (in Raleigh), which we ran for three years. I regret it now, taking on so much, because my kids are everything to me. Expansion is not always a good thing. I learned to focus on one area and create excellence.

But school was fun, too. I’d spend hours on drawings while the kids were asleep. It never felt like homework.

Allen’s studio, located above the Ivy Cottage sales floor, reflects her love of color and enduring design. “We try to stay eclectic in our offerings,” she says. “I like that style best, because it looks as though it’s been collected over time.”  

How has Ivy Cottage evolved?

We’ve grown with the community. In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect this — I had no 20-year plan at the start! This is a hard business, with lots of overhead. We’ve made structural, personnel and product changes to survive; for example, we changed the mix to more gifts when the economy crashed, and that kept us afloat.

Our design services are unique in that we don’t charge by the hour; we take on clients with a realistic budget and time frame, and a willingness to be creative. Smaller clients can bring in photos and we’ll help you in-store.

We’ve been in this location 12 years. It used to be a dry cleaners, a nondescript rectangular block, but we worked with an architect to design the store. I even tried having a coffee shop since we had the drive-through. That was a humbling disaster!

And I’ve had a tremendous staff in place over the past several years, after some trial and error. They’re dependable and loyal, and they amaze me. (Tears up.) They’ve done everything to keep the store going, hard physical labor and more. I couldn’t have done it without them. We’re like a little family. We support each other and make this a positive place.

Are your children involved?

James is 19 and a business major at UNC Chapel Hill. Emma is 16 and a junior at Cardinal Gibbons High. Both have respect for beauty, art and travel. I take Emma to market; she has a fresh, hip eye and a good sense of what will work in the store. She’s brought in new accessories, like a bridge jewelry line that’s doing well for us.

Allen working at the home of design client Tanya Harvey; after opening Ivy Cottage Collections as a gift shop in 1995, customer demand led Allen back to school to study interior design.

My energy comes from my family. We love to cook and work out together, take little excursions. We built a huge deck on the back of our house this summer. And we got a new puppy, Stella. I’ll be bringing her to the store.

What are Ivy Cottage’s trademarks?

High quality and good design. When you buy a piece here, you will love it for a long time. We try to stay eclectic in our offerings. I like that style best, because it looks as though it’s been collected over time.  

We work hard to make the store an experience each time you visit. We never compete with the big box stores, because we’re not about price. We’re about unique items, beautiful gift wrap, shipping and showing you how to put things together.

Who are your clients?

When it comes to clientele base, I couldn’t have been dropped in a better place on this planet. I’ve had many of the same clients over these 20 years; these become real relationships that I enjoy. The most gratifying part of what I do is seeing people so happy with the transformation.

The Ivy Cottage building used to be a dry cleaners, top, says Lisa Allen. She worked with an architect to design the store, shown here around 2005.

At the store, we see five or six people a day who tell us it’s their first time in; it’s exciting to know we’ve become a destination. The holidays are so much fun, and our Girls’ Night Out has become a tradition.

What’s next?

Being busy makes me happy, and I love the results. I have an interest in designing my own line of furnishings, so I’m learning more about that. James found new resources in Malaysia during his travels, so I may look at importing things from far-reaching parts of the world that you wouldn’t usually find in Cary.

We’ll continue to be among the state’s top fundraisers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a cause close to my heart.

“Our design services are unique in that we don’t charge by the hour,” Allen says. “We take on clients with a realistic budget and time frame, and a willingness to be creative. Smaller clients can bring in photos and we’ll help you in-store.”

And we’re having an anniversary celebration on Sept. 19 from noon to 4, a family fun day that’s a thank you for shopping with us all these years. We’d love for everyone to join us!

Ivy Cottage 20th Anniversary Party  

Sept. 19, Noon to 4 p.m.

Music, entertainment, Duck Donuts, Jam Ice Cream Truck, Kokuyu BBQ and more  

ivycottagecollections.com

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