Karen Thompson knew when she graduated from Pennridge High School that she did not want to attend college. But she did want a career.
It was her grandmother who led her to sales, and the training program at Bamberger’s Department Store in the Montgomery Mall branch.
“My grandmother loved fashion, always dressed well,” Karen said in her warehouse office in Mechanicsville last week. Her grandmother, Karen said, still dresses well and she is going to be 100 years old.
The decision was not ill-advised. Karen worked her way into an executive training program, moved up the line in the Macy’s (the buyer of Bamberger’s) structure, became an assistant buyer. Soon she was manager of the Montgomery Mall store.
Eventually, she found her way to New York, where she worked for vendors selling to department stores. During that time, in 1988, she opened Lace Silhouettes, the lingerie shop in Peddler’s Village, Lahaska.
She had had a small lingerie shop at Anne Bailey’s Bridal Shop in Fountainville but the foot traffic was not enough to sustain the lingerie business.
Karen saw an opportunity in Peddler’s Village but she had to convince Earl Jamison, the Village’s founder, that he needed a lingerie shop. She didn’t stop with just one request but went back again – and again – until he offered Karen an old storage shed on Village Lane. He moved a few walls around and added fresh paint to create the shop that’s still there, after 30 years.
Karen was 26 years old.
Four years later, she founded Cotton Company, another Peddler’s Village shop that offers comfortable contemporary sportswear.
Signatures, a women’s clothing boutique on Street Road at the edge of the main village complex, came on board in 2004. “Signatures is a lifestyle store offering contemporary fashion-forward clothing for every event in a woman’s life,” the shop promotion says.
Two shops joined the group in 2014 – Village Outfitters and Sunflowers.
Village Outfitters carries men’s and women’s active lifestyle apparel. It sells outwear and outdoor gear and cold weather accessories, with resort apparel added to the mix.
Sunflowers is as bright as its name. It’s a gift shop with unusual clothing, footwear, jewelry, home accessories.
Just two years ago, Farmer’s Daughter arrived in the village, in the row of shops on Upper York Road (Route 263), with towels, sheets, table linens, pillows, rugs, throws and pottery, all home necessities.
Put all together, the shops became LSL Brands. And they extended beyond Bucks County, Lace Silhouettes, Cotton Company and Signatures are also in Cape May. There’s a Lace Silhouettes shop in Princeton and a pop-up version in Key West, open for the winter season.
By 2018, the groundwork was laid for LSL’s biggest venture, Fox and Holly. All of the pieces for a quick turnover were there in the variety of store brands.
The closing of the Bon-Ton Department store last year was a blow to the Central Bucks community. It had been built about 40 years earlier as one of the Allentown-based Hess’s stores and was a longtime staple in the neighborhood. Patrons mourned the closing as they would a person and Karen, a longtime patron herself, was impressed. “Whoever puts flowers in front of a store has got to love it,” Karen said.
LSL tested the water before Christmas with a pop-up store. Six buyers for the company converted one wing of Bon-Ton’s in 35 days, with merchandise reflecting the products available in the small shops.
The pop-up stayed and now the company is committed to becoming a full-fledged department store. As part of a long-term plan, the vacant section of Bon-Ton is being renovated to include a cosmetics department that will carry traditional cosmetics plus new “clean” organic brands. And Karen believes there’s a market for dresses in Doylestown.
“Certain departments will close as new departments are developed,” Karen said. She expects to be in the main building by May. Eventually, both sides of the store will be open and filled with merchandise.
Of course, it took more than one person to achieve all that LSL Brands has. Harry Thompson, Karen’s husband sold his successful technology business years ago to work with LSL and he is a full-time partner.
Their son Kerry, Karen’s “right-hand man,” came aboard four years ago. “He grew up in the business, traveled with me everywhere,” Karen said. Son Colin is a professional football player with the Alliance League in Birmingham, Ala. His mother said, “We rarely miss a game.”
The serndipitous path Karen took led to a diverse group of shops of many different brands. It’s not what she envisioned 30 years ago – she thought more of chain of lingerie stores across the country. But she took advantage of opportunities as they came her way.
Now she is thinking of creating careers for others as the company grows. She has developed internships with Philadelphia University and the University of Delaware. “We have nurtured 40 or 50 students,” she said, “and we learn from students.”
But there’s nothing like experience in marketing – getting to know for instance, how many pajamas or sweaters will sell in a season, watching the trends, testing the market with pop-ups, Karen said.
“Retail is changing,” she said. Large chains are closing but people still like having a place to shop. “People like to say retail opportunities are not available but you have to be adaptable, willing to change.”
With careful, measured expansion, know-how and an abundance of faith, so far, LSL Brands has got it right.