BERLIN – An iconic Berlin business will change hands this fall after 25 years on Main Street.
Victorian Charm, which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year, has been sold and will soon be operating under new ownership. Longtime shopkeepers Debbie and Steve Frene have decided to retire.
“It was almost a spontaneous decision to even think about it, and it’s happened so fast and easy I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Debbie Frene said.
In the early 1990s, Frene was working for the town when she realized there was a need in Berlin for a gift shop. Local residents didn’t want to have to drive to Salisbury every time they had to purchase a quick present for someone. And so Frene opened Victorian Charm long before the town had gained its current popularity.
“When we first opened, you almost had to beg people to come to Berlin,” she said.
Knowing that, she worked hard to ensure her inventory had a broad appeal. She stocked the shelves with items for every budget.
“I have tried to keep things over the years that are $10 and up,” she said. “We will have people that will come in … and they want something that looks nice, doesn’t look like it cost $10, but is $10 or less.”
In Victorian Charm’s early years, Frene said there were just five or six key merchants that worked together on efforts to bring visitors to town.
“We didn’t have committees and all,” Frene said. “One day we’d be standing in the shop and say, ‘you know what we ought to do?’ And then we would brainstorm it and make it happen. That’s how I’d say 90% of the events in Berlin happened.”
Their efforts got the ball rolling but Frene says it was the fact that Berlin was chosen as the location for the filming of the “Runaway Bride” that really secured the town’s success.
“No doubt about it the movie was the huge turnaround,” she said. “At that point we had events in place. Once the movie came, people got curious about Berlin, they saw our events and what we were planning and loved them. It was just a growing process from then. The more events we had the more people came, the more businesses that wanted to open.”
Merchants today don’t face the challenges the town’s shopkeepers faced in the 1990s.
“Right now it’s like if you open a business and do a halfway good job you’re probably going to make it,” she said. “Back then we struggled. I can remember finding out there was a convention in Ocean City and writing directions from that hotel, step by step, how to get to Berlin, going to the hotel and asking them to give it to people when they checked in or checked out. It was very hands on just trying to get people to come to Berlin. Now it just happens.”
While there’s no question Berlin has become a popular destination, not all downtown businesses prove profitable. Frene attributes Victorian Charm’s longevity to her efforts to offer what customers want.
“That’s where I have always concentrated, trying to make sure we had affordable gifts for everyone,” she said. “I think that’s a lot of it.”
She believes the friendliness of the store’s clerks has also played a key role.
“People can go anywhere and buy anything I have,” she said. “I think you’ve got to be friendly and helpful. It doesn’t matter if someone walks in here and buys anything, when they walk out that door if they’ve had a good experience that’s what counts.”
She added that she’s always enjoyed chatting with customers.
“You learn things and make friends,” she said. “You get as much out of it as they do. You really do.”
Nevertheless, Frene says she and her husband—who you can find leading Berlin Chamber of Commerce meetings or performing with his bluegrass band just outside the shop most summer Friday nights—are at an age where they’d like to have more free time to spend with kids and grandkids. They’ve talked about potentially retiring for years and decided just a few months ago to list the business for sale and see what happened.
“It’s just time,” she said. ‘Everybody said when it’s time you’re going to know it and I just kind of feel like it’s time to enjoy each other and our grandkids and kids. Life goes fast.”
Within two months of listing the business the Frenes agreed to sell Victorian Charm to Salisbury couple Chris Yingling and Melissa Stover.
“We found wonderful people to buy it,” she said. “We’re excited to turn over the reins to them mainly because they do have ties to Berlin and I think a lot of people are going to recognize them. They’re very nice people.”
Stover used to live in the area and Yingling is a former Worcester County teacher. The Frenes spent much of this week showing Stover the ins and outs of the shop and its daily operation.
“They’re going to pretty much keep everything exactly like it is,” Frene said. “I’m helping her order right now to make sure she’s got stuff in for Christmas.”
Stover said the couple already operated a cleaning business in Salisbury and had been looking to take on a second business when they saw that Victorian Charm was available.
“We were kind of looking for a new venture to take on,” Stover said. “This just looked to be the best opportunity for us. She’s been so successful with it… I don’t plan on changing a lot, just building on her success.”
While paperwork is still being finalized, they expect the sale to be completed within 30 days. Though she’s eager to have some free time, Frene said she was going to miss seeing customers every day.
“We’re going to miss everybody,” she said. “That’s the thing when you’ve worked 25 years you don’t have customers anymore you have friends.”
Local officials recognize the positive impact the Frenes have had on Berlin.
“Since its inception, the Victorian Charm has embodied just the right balance of tasteful goods, caring assistance and a vibe that has turned out to be the template for today’s charming downtown Berlin,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better example for our community.”
Ivy Wells, the town’s economic and community development director, agreed.
“It’s been so much fun working with Steve and Debbie,” she said. “I’ve told Steve that he and his band are always welcome to come play those summer Friday nights whenever they’d like.”