Nielsens Gifts Prepares for a Celebration

Editor at Large

NEW BEGINNINGS: The second Nielsens store will open in the original location at 3515 S. Peoria Ave. Andrea Nielsen Bartlett and Gary Bartlett stand in front of the doorway to their store.


Nielsens has gone full circle just in time for a major anniversary.
The legendary gift shop, which started as a mom and pop operation in the living room of a private home in Brookside in 1946, is returning to that home as it opens a second location in Tulsa. It is a culmination of almost miraculous coincidences.

It all started with a dinner in Wisconsin in 1940. A gentleman named Gayle Jensen was dating Dorothy Verheyden, a student studying speech therapy who had a yearning to start an upscale gift shop. Jensen had a friend, Arthur Nielsen, who had expressed a desire to also start a gift shop. Jensen thought it would be a good idea to get the two people together over dinner so he arranged for Nielsen and his fiancee to meet with himself and Verheyven on a double date.

As the couples sat down for dinner, Nielsen and Verheyden began discussing their dreams of a gift shop. Their ideas meshed. According to family lore, the other members of the dinner party hardly got a word in. By the time the dinner was over, the significant others had become relatively insignificant.

By the time World War II began Dorothy and Arthur were an item. Dorothy, who had spent her youth braving the winters of Wisconsin, spent the war years in Chickasaw helping soldiers who had been deafened by battle injuries. Arthur joined the Air Force and as a procurement officer traveled to Africa, France and Italy. The two married in 1943, but after the war were faced with a problem: they knew they wanted to open a gift shop but didn’t know where.

Dorothy’s Oklahoma experience had been positive so they wrote numerous Chambers of Commerce in the Southwest and the most promising response came from Lubbock, Texas. Borrowing $200 from Dorothy’s grandfather, the Nielsens set off on a grand quest for a site. $200 didn’t go very far even then, so Arthur sought the hospitality of an Air Force buddy who lived in Tulsa and might put them up for a couple of nights. “This guy’s mother was a real estate agent who, when she found out what Mom and Dad were seeking, said she had the perfect spot,” says their daughter Andrea, who now owns Nielsens. “She led them to a small house at 3515 S. Peoria Ave. and said the house could be rezoned from residential to commercial. Mom and Dad went to Lubbock anyway, didn’t like it, came back and rented the house.”

Dorothy became a teacher to insure some income. Arthur, good with his hands, built all the fixtures in the newly acquired property. Their initial inventory was their wedding gifts. “To add to the meager offerings, Dad would drill holes in vases that were brought to him by customers and make lamps out of them. Mom would make the lampshades. That’s how they started,” says Bartlett. In time Arthur and Dorothy went to market in Dallas where they quickly got credit. They had discerning eyes and bought carefully and the items they purchased sold rapidly enough to keep them ahead of their bills.

In time Andrea came along and with her, a problem. Times were still tough and hiring a babysitter while they were in Dallas was impossible. “I think I was five when a Mrs. Rainwater, I don’t remember her first name, told my parents she would look after me for a day. Mrs. Rainwater was selling hankerchiefs at the Dallas market, so she had time to look after me for a day, as my parents had to move in different directions. She taught me the handkerchief business, how merchants bought wholesale and sold for a profit, how to tell quality and which handkerchiefs were more expensive and why.”

When Arthur picked Andrea up, she cajoled enough money out of him to make her the kindergarten handkerchief queen of Nielsens of Tulsa.

“He made me a small counter and gave me a tiny corner of the store and for every handkerchief I sold, part of the proceeds went to him. I paid off the loan and, in time, started to expand.”

Meanwhile Dorothy and Arthur saw their small business taking off.
“They were always very frugal,” says Bartlett. “The bulk of the profits were spent on inventory.”

The keen eyes Arthur and Dorothy had for quality brought them some unexpected dividends.

“Once Dad was buying some Irish pottery from one of our suppliers, and he saw a crystal pitcher and asked who made it. He was told it was a firm that had once been famous but had been out of business for a century. It had been restarted under the name of the city where it was made, a place in Ireland called Waterford.”

Waterford wasn’t widely known so Dorothy, ever the teacher, would speak to any women’s club that asked her about the process of making fine crystal. Nielsens became one of the first American stores to offer Waterford, and to this day representatives from Waterford will travel from Ireland for special signing events at Nielsens.

Andrea’s own business instincts continued to be honed. At Oklahoma State University, she rented 144 square feet of the student union and opened a tiny shop featuring all sorts of trendy gifts. It was quite successful. Upon graduation, she returned to Tulsa and took her place behind the Nielsens counter. By that time, her father, ever willing to push the envelope, had opened another Nielsens at Southroads Mall, becoming the first shopkeeper to sign a lease in the first mall in Oklahoma. The Southroads store flourished for two decades while the changing nature of Brookside to what became called the Restless Ribbon, eventually meant the closing of the original site.

In time, new management at Southroads Mall made it clear the Nielsens’ lease would not be renewed and Andrea and her father started looking for a new location. “It was awful,” she recalls. “Anything I liked he didn’t, and anything he liked I didn’t. I was in the midst of this when I took a brief vacation to visit a friend in Arizona.” She recalls she and her friend were walking toward some Indian ruins when she heard a voice of a stranger cry out “You up there in the purple, may I ask you a question? You’re trying to make a major business decision aren’t you?” Andrea looked around and didn’t see anyone else wearing purple so she looked at the woman and replied, “Yes, who told you?”

“Nobody told me. I’m a psychic and I help people with business problems. I’m having a meeting with some clients this afternoon and I’d like you to join us – no charge, I think I can help.” Not knowing what to expect, Andrea went to the meeting where another psychic told her “Your dispute is about generational cross-purposes.” Since Andrea and her dad were having the disagreement, a second bulls-eye had been scored.

The participants were asked to make drawings of their heart’s desires; the drawings were collected and burned. Andrea returned to Tulsa, intrigued and amused by the whole thing until she took a look at The Plaza shopping center. There, nestled in a corner, was the window she had drawn in the picture. “I went in and the proprietor was at work.” I said, “You’re going to think I’m nuts, but I feel this is my store. He gave me a sort of a stunned look and replied, “I’d been hoping someone would take over my lease.” A deal was struck and Nielsens moved into its present location of 8138-A S. Lewis Ave. It has stayed there since, although the square footage has increased substantially.

About this time, Andrea married Gary Bartlett and became Andrea Nielsen Bartlett. Gary is a salesman too, but in a field far removed from fine porcelain and cut crystal; he sells energy industry equipment. “Andrea sells the small colorful stuff,” he laughs. “I sell the big, grey ugly stuff.” The Bartletts have adopted two daughters.

Nielsens maintains a passion for quality. In addition to Waterford (Ireland) it includes porcelains from Lladro (Spain), serviceware from Julia Knight (Minnesota), china from Herend (Hungary), crystal by Swarovski (Austria), Jay Strongwater crystal designs (New York), Penzo pottery (Zimbabwe) and items from dozens of other artisans and places. The range of offerings might surprise some people. Some items sell for as little as $5. Recently a piece of French crystal sold for $40,000. Naturally there is a lot in between. The store prides itself for its free gift-wrapping and its free local delivery. It works hard to maintain the standard set by Arthur and Dorothy Nielsen all those many years ago.

Now it is getting ready for its 65th anniversary and its original Peoria Avenue location has become available. Nielsens’ second store will open in the original location. The living room that once held gift items will once again be filled with them in time for the celebration.

The date of that anniversary should be easy to remember, 11/11/11.

Updated 11-08-2011

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  1. — Jerry P    Nov 8, 04:59 PM    #
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