Drenched in estrogen: A Fun Sister finds retail bliss

As zany as its owner, the Kingfield business has made a name finding items women can’t wait to get

The bizarre story of Patsy Skiba’s business success as the owner of The Fun Sisters Boutique began eight years ago and developed through an arrest, one sister leaving and two store moves. But Skiba’s rosy face and cheerful disposition mask any strife, making her job seem more like a shopping trip with girlfriends. She said the hard times and extra elbow grease has made the Kingfield business’ strong sales and media attention that much sweeter.

The zany 4253 Nicollet Ave. S. store is as unique as Skiba’s story — for example, it is open only a few days a month. On those days, rain or shine, passersby see the hoards of women piling into the brightly colored shop meeting Skiba’s smiling face, in search of the month’s newest fashion trends. She laughed as she said only a few men have been in the store, but usually they stand close to the door with arms crossed.

Kingfield resident Sandee Lawson was shopping at the store shortly before Mother’s Day. "I suppose I should buy for my mother, but I’m going to buy for myself," she said, smiling, with her arms full of purses.

Lawson said she comes to the store every month and even peeks through the windows when it’s closed to get a glimpse of the new merchandise. The store features mostly designer look-alike purses, wallets, jewelry and hair accessories for all ages.

Is that Gucci?

It’s the difference between "knock-off" merchandise and "look-alike" merchandise that landed Skiba in the Hennepin County District Court right as her business took off.

Skiba said she and her sister Mary Rolbiecki started the fledgling business in 1996 from her Tangletown home during the holiday seasons, selling "designer fake" purses. Soon after they started, the United States Department of Customs came knocking at Skiba’s door on a tip she was smuggling knock-off purses into the country.

Skiba said the smuggling allegation was untrue — but her merchandise did contain brand-name insignias, such as Kate Spade purse labels. That made them knock-offs, and therefore illegal.

Skiba said she and her sister didn’t know the merchandise was illegal because many people all over the Twin Cities sell them — and the sisters labeled the tags "fake."

After hiring an expensive lawyer, Skiba said she ended up with a felony conviction resulting in a $10,000 fine and 300 hours of community service. Skiba said it was a very expensive business lesson, but not one that would keep her down.

And something good resulted from the incident. Skiba said the police officer who arrested her and Rolbiecki ended up liking them, and referred to them in court as the "Fun Sisters"– thus giving their business a name. (Fun Sisters is not to be confused with the gifts and novelties store Sister Fun, 1604 W. Lake St.)

Movin’ on up

Once the sisters had a name and some money left over from their in-home sales, she said they decided to open a shop in December 2001 in the Windom neighborhood. They settled on the building that also houses Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, 5801 Nicollet Ave. S.

Daryl Skiba, Patsy Skiba’s husband, said he was glad to get the whole operation out of their house. "The store was becoming a cult," he said.

After working in the store for about nine months, she said her sister grew tired of it and moved to Seattle. Patsy Skiba said around that same time, Bobby and Steve’s were developing serious renovation plans that would force them to move, so she began looking for a new storefront.

She said she found the perfect fit last September on the 4200 block of Nicollet Avenue. Patsy Skiba said the neighboring businesses, such as Anodyne, 4301 Nicollet Ave., and N.E. Thyme Caf, 4257 Nicollet Ave. S., were a big draw, which she knew would help her already blossoming business. Her husband helped renovate and paint the shop, and it opened last September. Skiba said business has doubled at the new location, though she would not give dollar amounts.

Although Fun Sisters’ odd business hours may seem kooky, there’s a solid reason for them. A flight attendant since 1979, Patsy Skiba has worked for Northwest Airlines since 1989. She said that means she can only be open one extended weekend per month, although she’ll come in by appointment.

Since moving to Kingfield, Skiba has taken a voluntary leave from NWA to focus her attention on the store, as the airline tries to avoid larger layoffs. She said she uses the extra time to focus on buying trips and preparing the store.

Daryl Skiba said the truncated hours make the store more of a destination — even something people plan vacations around, because if they don’t come on a sale day, they might have to wait a month for the newest fashions.

She said in the spare time she has, she focuses on buying trips, flying to fashion hot spots such as Houston, L.A. and New York (not using her NWA discount), to meet with wholesalers and handpick her merchandise.

The secret to success is a family affair

If you ask the customers, they’ll go on and on about what makes the store great.

Nancy Jo McDermott of Apple Valley and her self-proclaimed "fun sister," Nancy Jean Bruns of Burnsville, said the decor and merchandise is funky and fun. "It makes me feel good when I look at it," said McDermott, clutching a summer purse featuring a woman with a red hat.

One secret weapon, said Skiba, is her ability to find the newest trends before they become popular, like butterfly hair clips or the magic scarf, which can be anything from a scarf to a dress, if you’re so bold.

She said her two daughters, Ashley, 16, and Lindsey, 20, have also been great resources. Skiba said they have distinctly different styles; Lindsey more bohemian and Ashley favoring the "girly" look.

By taking her daughters on buying trips, Patsy Skiba said she’s been able to incorporate many different styles into the store, appealing to a teens, young adults and women in their 30s and up.

Ashley Skiba said she has always had a passion for picking out fresh and popular styles. She said her experience working with her mom has helped them to grow closer and also helped her to set goals for after college –moving to L.A. to open her own store or working as a buyer for a major department store such as Saks Fifth Avenue.

Daryl Skiba said his main involvement with the store was helping keep the books and manual labor; however Patsy Skiba says his favorite task is using the pricing gun.

But Daryl Skiba said the store is popular because his wife makes it a fun place to be. "Her personality lends a lot to the success — it’s not easily duplicated," he said.