Matt Roberts and Carl Hentsch launched their first business inside a big yellow house in Tama about four years ago, and although their company has changed names as often as its changed locations during that time, it was fitting they would again find themselves in another big yellow house when they moved to Newton.
It was a sign, said Roberts, who also felt the town’s location between Tama and his hometown of Marshalltown was ideal for repeat customers who have come to know his reputation to stock shelves with merchandise that cannot be found anywhere else in the area. He hadn’t moved in yet, but it already felt like home.
“We just fell in love with this property because it reminded us a lot of our other house,” Roberts said in an interview with Newton News.
Betty J’s Mercantile officially opened in town on Nov. 1. For the past three months or so, Roberts and Hentsch have been renovating their home and shop. There is still work to be done, but the shop portion is ready, and it’s split between a room with fair-trade items and an “Iowa room” with gifts by local crafters and artists.
The business has gone by a number different names, starting as Big Yellow Antiques & More inside their home in Tama. Then they moved to a small storefront in downtown Tama. To account for the heavy traffic, Roberts and Hentsch opened a second space called Big Yellow Fabulous Finds & Fabric.
Eventually, the two would move away from their antique-centric offerings and move more towards giftware. They also physically moved to Ottumwa where they renamed the store to Big River Fabric & Gift Company since the shop was about a block away from the Des Moines River.
When they decided to move to Newton, the name changed again. While it was tempting to go back to Big Yellow, Roberts was given a chance to dedicate a business to his family. “Betty J” is actually Betty Jean, his grandmother who taught him everything he knows about antiques and business.
“She and my grandfather had an antique business for 55 years, I think, based out of Clear Lake and Le Grand. I would travel with them during the summers doing the antique shows all over the country,” Roberts said. “That’s where I picked up my antique knowledge and why we started out in antiques.”
Throughout the years the two business owners have sold everything from candy to furniture, and while some of those items can still be found at Betty J’s, the shop is putting more emphasis on greeting cards, fabrics, quilt pattern designs by Hentsch (who is a master quilter) and its dozen or so fair-trade giftware lines.
Many of the fair-trade gifts are from countries like India, Pakistan, Tunisia, Africa and Cambodia. Other shops around Newton either do not have such items or focus on it as heavily as the guys over at Betty J’s do. For Roberts, that’s great. He hopes customers at least find these different items interesting.
“That’s my whole goal in business,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to compete. I want to be different. Ever since we’ve opened — even when we were just in the antique business — we were always known to be a little different and carry unique things. We weren’t your typical antique store.”
Roberts likes unique things. If another shop is offering similar giftware, he is not afraid to drop it and find something different.
“I don’t want to be the same as anybody else,” he said. “I want to keep this a unique destination. That’s the whole goal. With that comes risk because sometimes you bring in different items that are not to everybody’s taste. But I also like that, too. Plus, I’m learning what people do like.”
Oftentimes what customers do like is when each item has a story. Which is why Roberts and Hentsch have attached tags onto every piece of merchandise that tells people where it is from. Roberts said it serves him well, too, when it comes to remembering the stories and origins of the gifts customers ask about.
Of course the keeper of the best story is Hentsch, a quiet and reserved artist whose talents are on full display inside the shop. His quilts hang on the walls. His books are stacked on shelves. Hentsch has taught classes and talked about quilting all over the world; he humbly mentioned local places like Grinnell and Knoxville.
But Roberts is quick to brag about Hentsch, saying he has been all over the country and even on cruise ships to talk and teach quilting.
Roberts said, “He’s written books and teamed up with a big name artist named Tula Pink.”
Hentsch adds, “And I design quilts for the fabric companies.”
“So he gets commissioned out by the fabric companies who make fabric. When they have a line they get ready to release, they ask him if he’ll design a pattern for them. Of course it has to go through the process of being approved, but once they approve it then it gets released into his patterns.”
Hentsch’s patterns and books aren’t going to be found anywhere else in Newton besides Betty J’s Mercantile. Again, it’s different.
In Newton, different can stand out in a big way. So far, Betty J’s has done just that. Opening weekend for the shop brought in numerous customers.
“We like this community quite a bit,” Roberts said. “We’ve always liked Newton and we’ve come here for the Fourth of July Parades and other events around town, and we’ve always enjoyed it. Right now, I can’t get over the overwhelming response from the community. I’ve never been so busy on Facebook.”
Even some of their former customers from the Big Yellow days found their way into the 309 First Ave. W. shop.
“Our very first customer on Wednesday, Nov. 1 was a former Tama customer,” he said. “So we’re getting some of our Tama customers back. We’ve got Marshalltown people coming to see us, too. It’s just so nice to be back in this little hub of communities. As a business owner, I like to see familiar faces.”
With a constantly changing line of products, there is even more reason to get familiar with Roberts and Hentsch.
“I always say, ‘If you see it, get it.’ Because if it’s fair-trade or even the Iowa crafters, chances are we’re not going to be able to get it in again,” Roberts said.