‘The best in small business’

A Seymour couple’s efforts to support small, local businesses and bring more people downtown have earned them state recognition.

Mike and Soni Birch, owners of The Picket Fence, an antique and collectibles store, were named Indiana Main Street Volunteers of the Year along with four others during the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs’ 2015 awards ceremony and anniversary celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.

Nominated by Seymour Main Street member Ruth Ann Rebber, the Birches still were surprised they were chosen.

“We don’t feel like we do a lot,” Soni Birch said. “But it makes you feel good to be appreciated.”

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Rebber said the couple do plenty and deserve the honor.

“Soni and Mike have been very supportive of Seymour Main Street ever since they opened their store,” Rebber said. “They represent the best in small-business owners and serve as great role models for downtown Seymour merchants.”

The Birches took on responsibility for Seymour Main Street’s Sidewalk Saturday program three years ago, planning and organizing the monthly downtown events. Sidewalk Saturdays allow local arts and crafts, antiques and other vendors to set up booths downtown in front of stores on the third Saturday of the month, drawing more traffic to the area.

“We helped collect all of the money from vendors and assigned people spots,” Soni Birch said. “I was kind of the person to see downtown for that.”

But due to unpredictable weather and a declining number of vendors, Birch said the program wasn’t bringing in enough business. So they came up with a different idea to conduct open house events throughout the year instead.

“We’re trying to get businesses downtown involved in the open houses,” she said.

For the recent Christmas open house, the Birches created a special punch card featuring their business and This Old Guitar, Artistic Impressions, Hearts Desire, Antiques and Uniques, Pete Baxter Woodworking, Java Joint, Bullwinkle’s Family Restaurant, Beautiful Chaos, Claire Marie, Bite the Bullet and Norm’s Footwear.

By visiting at least six of the merchants and getting the card punched, customers were entered to win a gift certificate from the store of their choice.

“You don’t even have to spend money. You just have to go into stores,” Soni Birch said. “The idea was to get people to go into stores they’ve never been in. Plus, there’s always new stores that people don’t know are here, and this gets them in.”

The idea was a hit, with people packing the downtown Nov. 14, bustling from store to store to do their holiday shopping.

Soni Birch has joined Seymour Main Street’s promotions committee, which is in discussions to have four similar downtown open house events a year, complete with punch cards and prizes.

“It will be bigger with more money to win and more stores involved,” she said.

All it takes is an idea to spark interest, excitement and participation, she said.

The Birches haven’t been Main Street members for long but now are encouraging more business owners and individuals to join.

“We always heard it was so expensive to join, so we helped out all we could without joining,” she said. But when they learned that annual memberships start at $25, they decided the investment would be worth it.

They opened The Picket Fence in June 2013 and have enjoyed meeting and serving customers and other downtown business owners. The store rents out booth space to other antique dealers and artisans.

“We still have people every single day that come in and say they didn’t know we were here,” Soni Birch said.

But the Birches hope to help put downtown Seymour on the map.

A lot of their customers are from out of town — people who travel to small towns looking for antique stores. By promoting other downtown businesses to their customers, the Birches are trying to help others out and hope for the same in return.

“Main Street is talking about wanting the downtown to be a destination and how we go about doing that,” Soni Birch said. “A destination could be a place for people to shop for antiques or something else. It doesn’t all have to be the same store, but there has to be a reason for people to come to your town.”

Rebber said she hopes other business owners follow the Birches’ example and get involved with downtown revitalization.

“As Seymour Main Street continues to improve the quality of downtown, Soni and Mike are shining a bright light for other merchants to follow,” Rebber said.