Splash: Jillian’s customers bring home smiles and unique finds

Mary Ernest waters a floral arrangement in front of Jillian’s Corner Cottage in Princeton with rainwater the shopkeepers collect in barrels. Like many items for sale at Jillian’s, each flower arrangement is unique and depends upon who created it. Maic D’Agostino photo

by Maic D’Agostino

Sometimes you walk into a place, and it just feels like home.

Brian Farley and Jill Dietz own two such places a block apart in Princeton.

And although they spend an awful lot of time at these places, neither is their actual home.

Jillian’s Corner Cottage, a store with unique gifts and decor, and Jillian’s Restaurant both rest on Fenton Street, with the corner shop placed on the corner (obviously) of Fenton and Main Street and the restaurant on Water Street.

The two establishments share a name that honors its two owners, serving it up like a combo meal.

“The ‘Jill’ comes from Jill, and the ‘ian’ comes from me,” Brian said.

When you walk into the restaurant any given morning, you might wonder if you just wandered into breakfast at some welcoming Princeton resident’s home.

Brian is right there at the stove, the smells of peppers, potatoes, bacon and eggs filling the small dining area, a plain white fridge to the left and a shelf holding up large bottles of seasonings and ingredients to the right.

Between the half-wall wood paneling, the lacy window treatments and the Jill-made arrangements, there are more signs you are in a home than a restaurant.

And that’s how Brian and Jill treat their customers: like guests and friends.

Sometimes, they see a new face, perhaps visiting the flea markets one Saturday, and Brian invites them to his other house:

The Corner Cottage.

Although Brian and Jill by necessity spend more time at the restaurant, they trust the proxies there.

Such as Mary Ernest.

She’s been working at the corner store since it opened four years ago.

“Brian and Jill are great people,” said Mary, who also serves as an alderwoman for the city. “They’re wonderful as far as giving back to the community … They’re really good neighbors in the community.”

Brian, for instance, cooks up food for the Lions Club’s spaghetti dinner, at no charge (the Lions provide the ingredients).

You know, the way you would for family.

Even though she has set hours, Mary pops into the store on days it might be busy, to see if she can lend a hand.

“I just come in and say, ‘You’re busy? I’ll stand here and wrap,’” Mary said. “And we do that back and forth … We’ve got some wonderful people working here.”

Each employee, along with Jill, creates arrangements, such as flowers in spring and summer and cornucopias in autumn, so each one is unique.

That’s a theme for most of the store, in fact.

Brian and Jill drive a van around the country — Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta — to find deals on items shoppers in Green Laker country might not be able to find otherwise.

And because they’re bargain hunters, their customers often pay less for special gifts.

“The prices are really reasonable,” Jane Kaiser of Fond du Lac told Mary while she and her husband Tim shopped the store’s year-round Christmas room for the first time.

“Maic, take note of that,” Mary said to me, laughing.

Jane, Tim, Mary and I each had visited both of Brian’s and Jill’s “homes” that morning, eating breakfast at the restaurant before heading a block down the street to the store.

While I wolfed down an omelet — that gratefully was unafraid of a little char — I sat at the counter, a few feet away from where Brian cracked eggs into multi-colored pans and scooped fried potatoes onto almost every plate (he cooks about 100 pounds of potatoes per week).

Pacing between plates, stove and customers, Brian repeated to me over and over again: The store sells gifts, arts, trinkets, crafts, decor and arrangements that are simply “one-of-a-kind.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” I said.

The shop is in a big, old house that reminded me a little of the home I grew up in. A grand, old silver maple tree stands guard out front, its bark peeling with age.

Like the restaurant, the corner cottage feels more than well-established, more than lived-in.

It feels like someone’s home.

The difference is you can have the lovely decor as your very own (for a price, of course).

But don’t wait too long if you see something you like.

“People come back and say, ‘I want that item I saw on the shelf and it was hanging right … there?’” Mary said, pantomiming a customer finding that an item’s gone and sold.

Just like its merchandise, the feel of the store changes, too, with the seasons and yearly surprises.

Even now, the colors of the store are turning to red, orange, yellow and brown, in anticipation of the crispness of fall.

For the shop’s “Christmas in July” event, you can get holiday gifts at 25-percent off (but you’ll have to wait ’til next year).

And if you see some things that seem odd or out of the ordinary, you might have arrived during its “Crazy Days.”

Although it seems some customers are too polite or too preoccupied to notice.

“Jill said, ‘Mary, go crazy.’ And so I did,” Mary said of 2016’s Crazy Days. “I wore two different shoes, I wore pajama pants, I wore different kinds of earrings, one of the sides of my hair was up, one was down. I did all these crazy things I  could think of to do — I had summertime, I had winter, I did all these different things on. And we were busy.”

Here she paused for dramatic effect.

“And not one person said anything,” she continued. “Not one person. I don’t know if they just thought I had horrendous taste or I got up late in the morning, but I thought it was so funny not one of them said [a word].”

It could be due to what some people call the “Wisconsin Nice” phenomenon, but then again that would fit right in with the warm, welcoming, Midwest atmosphere of Jillian’s.

“We have wonderful customers here,” Mary said. “We have very loyal customers, and we have new people all the time.”