Our Neighbors….Darlene CarterThe new Community Memorial Hospital gift shop is a dream come true for long-time volunteer Darlene Carter.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
They say that behind every good man there’s a good woman. Darlene Carter would beg to differ.
An active member of the Community Memorial Hospital Auxiliary for nearly 40 years, Carter has volunteered in the hospital gift shop for most of those years as both buyer and manager. And as the brand new version of the gift shop opened its doors just last month as part of the hospital’s most recent reconstruction project, Carter was reluctant to take sole credit for its sleek, sophisticated look and boutique-like appeal.
“We knew we weren’t going to have anything here except bare walls, so we had to come up with ideas of how to display things,” she explained. “I’ve relied on my husband Jack a lot for that – he’s so good at it! I couldn’t have done it without him.”
As an example, Darlene said she saw a display rack shaped like a section of picket fence in a shop and thought it would be a really cool way to display things in the hospital gift shop – so Jack simply made one for her.
Jack, an amateur woodworker, also made a quilt display rack, a Lazy Susan for ornaments, a revolving jewelry rack, and many other display shelves and racks for the gift shop, including a stunning fireplace mantle.
“I wanted a fireplace mantle for the gift shop, which I thought would be really cute,” Darlene said, “so Jack went with me to look at them. They were all so expensive, and some of them you couldn’t buy without the actual fireplace inserts. So he said to me, ‘Well, I can make one!’ which he did – for a lot, lot less, and it fit our space perfectly!”
It comes as little surprise to anyone who knows the Carters that they work so well together, since the two of them have been an “item” since they were first married 56 years ago. Darlene first came to Cloquet from Le Sueur, Minn., in 1953 after graduating from Mankato State with a degree in elementary education.
“I loved kids,” she said, “and I always wanted at least six of my own. It turned out I got a whole classroom of them.”
She was working as a third-grade teacher at Leech School when she first met Jack, who was living and working in Cloquet. After the two were married in 1956, Darlene quit her full-time teaching job but did a lot of tutoring and volunteering. Around that same time, she and Jack also decided to open an appliance store in downtown Cloquet – an appliance store with an unusual twist.
“It was a clothing store, too,” said Darlene. “We had pretty much all types of clothing, but a lot of baby clothing, because that was when we were hoping to start our family!”
The Carters have three children – Rick, Cathy and Cindy – all of whom are now grown and parents to the Carters’ seven grandchildren.
As the Carters’ children grew older, Darlene continued as a stay-at-home mom but volunteered in the schools and at church. In 1976, when their son Rick graduated from high school, Darlene decided to branch out and try the hospital, where she volunteered in the nursing home helping residents do crafts.
At the same time, Darlene joined the board of the Hospital Auxiliary, serving first as secretary, then as vice president and eventually as president.
“It was fun,” she said. “We did a lot of things, and I really got involved at the district and state levels and got to meet a lot of other people.”
Not long after she joined the Auxiliary, Darlene became involved with the hospital gift shop, at first as a volunteer to help staff it and eventually as a buyer, along with the late Bette Ulland. The two traveled to a gift mart in Minneapolis twice a year to purchase merchandise to stock the gift shop, which Darlene found to be “very busy” and somewhat challenging.
“Buying [for the small hospital gift shop] used to be really difficult,” she admitted, “because most of the sellers we would go to required that you buy two dozen of some item or a minimum order of $500 or $1,000, which sometimes was more than we had to begin with!”
She explained that most of the money the volunteers make in the hospital gift shop they try to give back to the Auxiliary to donate to the hospital for equipment and furnishings, though they must put some of it back into purchasing inventory for the shop.
When Darlene first started working in the hospital gift shop, it was located just to the left of the main entry corridor in a tiny space dubbed “The Apple Cart” after the traditional role of hospital volunteers who deliver books, snack items and small sundries to patients on a movable cart.
The shop was later moved to the lower level of the hospital for a time and then – following completion of Phase 1 of the hospital’s renovation project – it was relocated to the main level once again, along a corridor just down from the main floor registration desk.
One of the premier events of the year was the gift shop’s annual Holiday Gift Boutique, when seasonal and gift merchandise was featured in a one-day event, complete with an Auxiliary-sponsored cookie walk and fancy tea service. The popular annual event accounted for a major part of the gift shop’s annual fundraising, though the boutique hasn’t been held for the past few years due in large part to the repeated relocation of the gift shop. Carter hinted that it may be back next Christmas, however, though possibly in a more upscale format that should have a greater appeal to modern shoppers.
Darlene continued her work at The Apple Cart even after she and Jack decided to close the doors of their appliance store 16 years ago and retire to Duluth.
“We thought we’d stay there for a year or so, clear up the business and sell our cabin – but we’re still there!” she said.
She still drives back and forth to Cloquet, often daily, to help manage the gift shop and also goes on the twice-annual gift buying trip.
When the hospital began to make plans for Phase 2 of its ambitious building project, Darlene was eager to see what the renovations would mean for the gift shop. The shop was closed for three months while the construction of the latest wing was under way, and Darlene kept close tabs on the space allotted for the gift shop.
“I had the construction guys let me in so I could measure and decide just where everything would go,” she admitted. “I knew just what I wanted!”
When The Apple Cart reopened in its new – and far more updated – space in early December, Carter and her fellow volunteers were in a flurry of activity to install display areas, unpack new merchandise and set up hours and staffing.
“The shop is really nice,” she said, pointing to its prime location in the busiest part of the hospital. “We get employees stopping by on their way to and from the cafeteria or the nursing home and visitors on their way to the patient rooms or to the specialty doctors.”
Darlene said while most of the merchandise they purchase is well received by gift shop customers, she admitted with a chuckle that every once in a while there’s something that doesn’t quite go over as well as planned.
“For a while rings were big in the Twin Cities, and my kids down there all liked those big, clunky rings,” she said. “But they didn’t sell here! And we wanted hats, because they were a big thing in the Cities, too, but they haven’t sold all that well until recently.”
She said the hardest part about buying for the gift shop is the balancing act between what appeals to them personally and what they think others might buy.
“We have to go there knowing that we can’t buy everything we like,” said Darlene. “We have to think of what someone else might want.”
With the prime location of the new gift shop, Darlene said the nursing home residents can now wheel down there in their wheelchairs and go shopping.
“The doorway is wide enough for their wheelchairs to get through, and I try to keep enough room between the displays so they can get around them,” she said. “Some of them just like to come down here on their own and window shop, which is something they couldn’t do before this.”
The fashionable new shop utilizes an interesting array of merchandising styles and displays – thanks in large part to the skills of Darlene’s husband Jack, as well as all sorts of creative input from Darlene and others.
There’s an old rocking chair that once belonged to the Carters’ granddaughter’s great-great-grandmother.
“It was all rickety and falling apart,” said Darlene, “so Jack braced it up so now you can sit on it.”
There’s also a lamp that they dug out of a dumpster, put a few frills on it and now it’s a design feature in the new shop in front of the fireplace mantle. Darlene recalled how she once spotted a children’s clothing display rack in bright shades of red and yellow in a magazine, and Jack reproduced it for her to use in the shop.
“It was so heavy we could hardly get it here!” she said with a laugh.
Volunteer Karen Grover donated a crib that she used for all her kids as they were growing up, and it now provides a display area for the shop’s many stuffed animals. Darlene’s sister operates an antique store, which has been the source for several other of the shop’s furnishings.
“Every time a new order comes in,” said Darlene, “I have to come up with some new way to display it. That’s something I really like to do.”
Darlene said they are planning an open house for The Apple Cart to coincide with the eventual opening of the hospital’s new cafeteria sometime later this winter or early spring.
In the meantime, she’s been driving to Cloquet daily to help volunteers become accustomed to the new gift shop’s operation, and she and fellow volunteer Sue Johnson will be headed out on a buying trip for spring and summer merchandise later this month.
“I always thought I’d never still be around by the time the new shop was opened,” she admitted, “but as I started helping with the planning, it was so much fun. Now I hope I can stay around a little longer!”