Karen Burke, K Colette

With a style-packed store and booming online sales, a conversation with K Colette’s Karen Burke – a former math teacher turned entrepreneur – is a lesson in why it’s never too late to make a fresh start. 

Of all the things you might expect a successful storeowner to say, “I’m not a shopper” isn’t one of them. So it’s a surprise when Karen Burke, the founder of home design boutique K Colette, makes the declaration.

Dressed in slim jeans, suede loafers, and a flax-colored linen button-down, Burke explains that it’s not that she doesn’t like stuff; it’s that she doesn’t covet any old thing. She cherishes what is classic and timeless, as evidenced by her look today. “The shop is representative of who I am and what speaks to me,” she says. “The feel, the quality, the color.”

K Colette is welcoming in the same way she is, stylized but approachable, and it’s an aesthetic that resonates with shoppers. We meet at the Commercial Street location, where a steady stream of customers, from young mothers to retired couples on vacation, come in to browse in the early morning sun that streams through the corner windows. Eye-candy displays tempt passersby with buttery, hand-sewn leather bags, soft wool throws woven on antique looms, and small-batch, triple-milled soaps. Everything immediately invites you to touch, try, smell, sample, splurge, and take home.

Burke’s senior buyer—who is in her late 20s—has joined us. It’s an invitation that seems to have been extended as a learning opportunity, but also because Burke truly values her input. “I like to have this mixture of staff. There are some of us, the older generation in our 40s and 50s, whom I call the ‘the older and the wise,’ and also those who are in their 20s, whose opinions are fresh and young,” she says. Despite their age difference, there is a purposeful mix of bedding, books, bath, and beauty products that speaks to both of their tastes. But don’t mistake Burke’s cross-generational appeal as a craze for the latest thing. When Burke visits shows and scouts for new lines, she’s not looking for what’s hot or popular. “I’m not trend-sensitive,” Burke says, “I’m trend- ignorant.”

What Burke is looking for are objects that tell a story. “Working with artisans has always been my mission,” she says. “Maybe what you see in the shop is the TLC that is coming through because the people who are making these products really care about what they’re doing.” Maine-made products include jewelry from Basha Burwell and leather bags from Rough and Tumble. Custom work and collaborations have included lines with local companies and artists such as Sea Bags, Designs Adrift, and Laura Fuller, as well as national brands such as John Robshaw Textiles and Taylor Linens. Burke is just as likely to source original paintings from an artist selling them on the street in Portland as she is linens that are hand-woven in Lithuania. And although finds may come from around the globe, Burke believes that this city is exactly the right market. “Being here in Portland, in more of an artisan community, there is this openness to and willingness to collaborate,” she says. “People don’t seem to be shy or reserved about trying new things.”

Burke could just as easily be talking about herself. A native of St. Louis, she grew up in an art-minded family: her grandfather was an architect, her sister is a painter, her mother an interior designer. “The joke in our home was that you couldn’t come downstairs in the middle of the night because all the furniture would be rearranged,” she says. She went to camp on Sebago Lake as a girl, and then came back to New England for college.

After school, she and her husband lived in Atlanta, where Burke taught seventh-grade math. One day, out of the blue, her husband received a call from a headhunter. “He told us that he had this great opportunity, but there was a drawback. It was in Portland, Maine,” she explains. “My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘That actually sounds pretty good.’” So they picked up and moved 1,000 miles north, settling in Cape Elizabeth.

There, they raised two children, and Burke volunteered for educational non-profits.

And that’s when I learn another exceptional thing about Burke: she was in her mid 40s when she opened K Colette. “I decided to do something totally different in my life,” she says. Coming up empty-handed while searching for table linens, she developed the idea for a retail boutique. “It was fast and furious,” she recalls of the store’s opening in summer 2012. “The experience was like a crash course in business school.” As a self- confessed math nerd, the data and finances didn’t intimidate her, but she admits she had much to learn about merchandising. “There’s a lot of detail to retail,” she quips. “I made all of the classic mistakes of a first-time entrepreneur, swept away by enthusiasm, passion, and impulse. Those have all been very valuable lessons.”

Like any creative enterprise, the store has evolved since the early days. The website features original product photography, while its blog The Revue profiles artisans. Online orders come in and the staff runs to grab a one-of-a-kind item off the floor. “I want what we are doing to be accessible to people in Maine and from away,” she says about plans to grow e-commerce. “I have a wonderful staff that seems really happy with what they’re doing. It’s a climate that makes it worthwhile to come to work. That’s probably the teacher in me,” Burke says. “But we are looking at the big picture and figuring out how to take it to the next level.”

For now, it seems this former math teacher has figured out a surefire formula for retail success. It’s an equation that combines style with smarts, creativity with collaboration, and factors in a few happy surprises along the way.



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