Arkansas' Destination Draws Customers Come From Far and Wide

Arkansas is home to a number of businesses in small towns or rural areas that have become "destination" draws, attracting customers to their remote locations from far away.

Most of these businesses don't offer anything unique, but something draws people to them. In talking with the owners of these destination sites, one finds a common denominator: They are genuine, open, friendly, hard working and, more than anything else, willing to do whatever it takes to please or serve their customers.

Narrowing down the list of business was a task, and no doubt others could be included.

Because the list was limited to businesses that could provide their goods or services anywhere, destinations such as Gaston's White River Resort and the wineries around Paris and Altus were eliminated. And the limitation meant such places as McClard's in Hot Springs or A.J. Russell Knives in Rogers had to be cut since both are in MSAs, or Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

We did debate over Ranger Boats at Flippin. Could it be anywhere? Well, if there's water around.

One business that is relatively new but that could become a destination draw is the Parachute Inn at Walnut Ridge. Donna Robertson, the owner, took a retired Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 and transformed it into a novel restaurant. It's at the Walnut Ridge Airport grounds.

Others that are certainly destination spots include Lois Gean's, a boutique at Magnolia that draws fashionistas from far and wide; Mack's Prairie Wings at Stuttgart; Aromatique at Heber Springs; Antique Warehouse at Botkinburg, which with 90,000 SF of showrooms is one of the largest antique dealers in the mid-South; and Paul Michael Co. at Lake Village, which features rugs and home furnishings.

Here's a closer look at three more destination businesses:

Morris Antiques

Folks looking for fine antiques know they need look no further than Morris Antiques at Keo.

Dean Morris, a farmer who started the business as a hobby in 1967, has seen it grow from a house full of antiques to a business taking up 12 buildings in the tiny historic town between Scott and England. These buildings house unusual furnishings primarily from the United States, England, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

About 50 percent of his inventory is American, Morris said, with the other half a mixture of furnishings from Western Europe.

What makes Morris Antiques so appealing to so many is that just about anything anyone is looking for can be found in one place - from dining tables to bed sets, armoires, desks, bookcases, lamp tables, dressers, chests, nightstands, hall trees, etageres and chairs.

Nine buildings at the main site, covering 60,000 SF, are filled with antiques and vintage items from the 1750s through the 1940s.

Morris also owns the Crystal Hill Antique Mall in North Little Rock. He said he planned to move his entire business there in the 1980s when the antique mall concept was sweeping across the country, but realized that "there was too much to move" and so he has stayed put at Keo.

Morris said his aunt, Aurelia Venable, was big into antiques and got him interested in them. While he was still farming, Morris said, people would come to him and ask if they could get certain "primitive" antiques, hot items at the time.

During the slow times in farming, he went from farmhouse to farmhouse looking for items. Next thing he knew, he had filled his house and had to build a small building next to it to house the antiques. He gave up farming in 1980 and turned his full attention to the antique business.

"It's been a fun business," Morris said.

Over the 40 years, he has made lots of connections with dealers overseas and in the United States and has constantly sought better quality furnishings.

Interior decorators from around the country have found Morris Antiques a convenient place to find much of what they want under one roof.

Morris said one reason his business has been so successful is because he tries to keep prices reasonable.

"People hear the word "antiques," and they associate it with high price, but that's not always the case," he said. And the quality of fine solid wood pieces can seldom be matched with much of modern furniture, especially imports from China, he said.

Over time, Morris said, he has upgraded to better, more unusual pieces, but he credits service as another big reason for his success.

"We have trained people to restore pieces," he said. Morris said the restoration part of the business now takes up much of his time and is a growing part of the operation. He replaces the leather on a desk, re-silvers mirrors and carves pieces of wood to match missing parts.

Morris has sold half-interest in the business to his son, Lewis, and his daughter, Terrie Collins.

Morris has a Web site, www.morrisantiques.com, and he said about 10 percent of his business now comes via the Internet and he expects that to increase. One drawback for the Internet, however, is that many of the antique pieces are massive and the cost of shipping can be high.

Morris Antiques

(501) 842-3531

Hours: Tue.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.; closed Monday

Low's Bridal & Formal

Most people are stunned by the size of Low's Bridal & Formal at Brinkley, but it's a pleasant surprise.

An hour's drive from either Little Rock or Memphis, Low's is the largest bridal shop in the South and probably among the top five in the nation.

Low's Bridal & Formal sells some 5,000 wedding dresses a year and keeps about 3,000 in stock at its shop in a historic 25,000-SF railroad hotel that has been transformed into a grand, but enjoyable, celebration of all things matrimonial.

Overseeing the business is Dorcas Prince, daughter of Margo Low, now 80, who started it all in 1977. Prince took over the shop 12 years ago.

Prince's father, Bob Low, now 84, owned a drugstore on Main Street that had a china registry for brides and also offered children's clothing and gifts.

Margo Low, on a trip to the market in Dallas years ago, was asked about a bridal shop in Brinkley. She answered that there wasn't one. The former home economics teacher thought about it and eventually ordered six wedding dresses from Mori Lee Co.

"We're still with them," Prince said. What started out in a single room above the drugstore grew. Later, Margo Low went to New York and entered the couture business, offering gowns that couldn't be bought anywhere else - well, at least not in Arkansas.

As the business expanded, it took up the entire upstairs of the drugstore. It then grew to occupy what had been a grocery store next door. In 1997, the business was moved into the old hotel, occupying two floors. The bride-to-be and all the wedding party can be completely outfitted at Low's.

"We strive to handle things that are different from other shops," Prince said.

Gowns on the main floor cost $1,000 or less, while the dresses on the second floor start at $1,500 and can run up to $6,000 or more. The average spent on a gown is around $1,000. The shop has gowns from more than 50 different designers.

During its busy season in January and February, a staff of 30 is on hand to take care of every detail for brides and bridesmaids.

Years ago, Prince and her husband, Stanley, also catered weddings, but they decided they shouldn't spread themselves too thin. "Wedding dresses are our business, and we decided to be the best at doing bridal," Prince said.

The shop has an Internet site, www.lowsbridal.com, but Prince said bridal gowns are a very specific garment and all need a nip or tuck for a perfect fit, so no gowns are sold via the Internet; it essentially serves as just an advertisement.

"We try really hard whenever you have a problem to fix it, to give the customer what you would want yourself," she said.

Prince sits on the Retail Advisory Board of the National Bridal Market of Chicago.

Customers from every state and several foreign nations have bought dresses at Low's but most of the shop's business comes from Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Appointments are recommended.

Low's Bridal and Formal

(870) 734-3244

Hours: Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed Sun. and Mon.

Terra Studios

Jamie Ulick and his wife, Lyn (daughter of founders Leo and Rita Ward), bought the Terra Studios at Durham this year.

While you may not recognize the Terra Studios name, most Americans will recognize the Bluebird of Happiness. More than 8 million of the handmade brilliant blue crystal glass figurines have been sold throughout the country.

And Terra Studios is one of the most unusual and creative destination spots in Arkansas or the surrounding states. Visitors to the 30-acre site at Durham, about 16 miles south of Fayetteville on Highway 16 in the wooded hills of the Ozarks, can stroll through a sculpture garden, a mural garden and a stone labyrinth, in addition to the glass and pottery centers. The business also boasts an events center and RV park.

If you enjoy watching artisans create glass objects, sculptures, murals or pottery bounded only by their own creativity, then Terra Studios is the place to go. Between 75,000 and 100,000 people visit Terra each year to see the skilled glassblowers create the little "gift of happiness."

It is an art park as well as a business and crammed full of fantasy - from whimsical characters to fine art pieces that comes from what Ulick calls "unique unbridled creativity."

Founder Leo Ward is a glass artisan while Rita creates crafts in clay. The Wards, former school teachers in California, started the business in 1975.

Ulick said Terra is in the process of turning into an artist community with more than 30 artists involved at the glass center and pottery center.

The pottery house showroom is an outlet for the Terra Guild members' work and offers a variety of handmade art, jewelry, clay art, raku and art glass.

While all of Terra's artwork is handmade, the company faces stiff competition from cheaper Chinese-made imitations, Ulick said, which has cut into its profits.

About 20 percent of its business now comes from its Web site, www.terrastudios.com, and that's an area that Ulick plans to develop, he said.

Terra Studios

(479) 643-3185, (800) 255-8995

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.