Cuddles owner Sally Shoemaker may have closed the doors to her downtown shop one final time, but she takes 24 years of memories with her.
One of those treasured memories is recent: In July, a little girl came into the store with a letter for the retiring Shoemaker, 63, who had owned Cuddles since 1998.
"She came up to the counter and gave me a letter about how this store had influenced her," she said. "I was crying, she was crying and customers were crying."
That heartfelt sentiment, though, is not unusual, said Shoemaker, who started working at the store in 1990, when it was Cuddles Hallmark. She, her employees and the store have befriended many over the years — during often emotional times — up until her last day on July 31.
Stuffed with character
The store, known for its plush stuffed animals, had been downtown — first on the Five Points intersection, then briefly in a gift shop for the Clarke Hotel, and finally in shared space with Martha Merrell's book store one block to the east on Main Street — for her customers' life events.
"Plush animals can be so important," Shoemaker said.
They are often a baby's first gift, a child's best friend, a comfort to an aging person entering a nursing home, and a final memento tucked in a casket.
"I've even tied an engagement ring onto a teddy bear," she said. "Those are the kinds of things I will remember."
The store, too, has provided lasting family memories, said the mother of a grown son and two adult daughters.
All three children would take turns dressing up in Cuddles' bear or Easter bunny costume.
"My two daughters worked at the store. My husband was Santa for many years. So it was a family affair," Shoemaker said.
She will miss those times, too, but most of all though, she will miss her customers. "And I will miss all the business owners I've worked with all these years," she said.
All of which took place downtown, an ever changing environment in her days there.
Cuddles' last home was at 231 W. Main St., with Martha Merrell's Books, but when the downtown Waukesha staple opened in 1981, it was located at downtown's prime intersection, in the space now occupied by a restaurant and bar at the street level of the Clarke Hotel.
Those many years ago, Shoemaker said, the downtown was not vibrant. But, with "many helping hands," that changed.
"The downtown is the heart of the city," she said, "and it is a vital place."
A teacher by trade, the Appleton native said she just stumbled onto retailing. "I had owned a small business in Cambridge, and I had done craft consignments."
A new job for her husband brought the family to Waukesha in 1990, but before they moved, he told her, "There's this really great little gift shop you're going to love."
Indeed, she did. Shortly after moving here, she applied to be a clerk at Cuddles. Weeks later, she became the manager, and when it was up for sale, "I took the leap and did it. I love owning a small business."
Cuddling in other ways
While she's retiring, she'll remain active.
She intends to spend more time with family – her daughters and two grandchildren live here. "I can visit my son on the East Coast for weekends."
And she's still going to operate Cuddles online.
"I'm going to continue my Cuddles eBay store," she said. "I have just about everything I have in the store online."
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