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The ties that bind: At Hopewell's distinctive retailer Twine, owner's sense of community makes perfect business sense in the Amazon era

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Melissa Cookman, owner of Twine in Hopewell.
Melissa Cookman, owner of Twine in Hopewell. - ()

Amid a most unusual collection of items — everything from a bowl of Scrabble tiles, crazy socks, hard-to-find books and candy, vintage furniture and every craft item you can imagine — is a most unusual sign.

It’s the item Melissa Cookman, the owner of Twine, likes best about her I-can’t-believe-they-still-have-this-type-of-business she has owned in Hopewell for more than five years:

It says, “Remember, if you break it, we put it in the wrong place,” she said.

Cookman says she means it.

“We don’t want you walking in feeling like you can’t explore,” she said. “So, when a parent walks in and I hear them say to their kids, ‘Don’t touch anything,’ I let them know, they can touch whatever they want.

“It’s a really key thing to me; I just want everybody to walk in and relax.”

That’s the way it has been for the 62-year-old Cookman since she opened the store on a whim. Or was it a dare?

“I was pretty much a stay-at-home mom forever,” she said. “And I always had this romantic notion of opening a store and people always talked me out of it.

“Then someone said to me one day, ‘When are you going to do this? You’re 57 years old.’

“I called my friend who happens to be a Realtor, and I said, ‘I need to find a place to use as a store.’ We found it that day and I signed for it that day. Total impulse.”

She’s filled the store with, well, everything you won’t find on Amazon. Or, better put, the type of things Cookman has spotted at flea markets and auctions over the years.

“We are everything you want and didn’t know you need,” she said. “We are a little bit of everything.

“We sell things from card books to candles to big metal stars made out of license plates, even jewelry. We try to sell things you don’t find elsewhere. And, when it gets to a really big store, we sort of stop selling it. Because I want you to walk in and go, ‘Huh, haven’t seen that.’ ”

Cookman could be talking about the store itself as much as a unique item.

Now in its second location, the store is a throwback to a previous time in retail, if not society.

Complete with a fire pit, a renovated outdoor movie screen that regularly hosts the whole town and a workspace where kids and adults can make crafts using all available supplies, this isn’t your average card store.

“We have a fire pit in the back and I have chairs sitting around it, so, when parents and their kids come, parents can sit outside while their kids are shopping,” she said.

Shopping, however, isn’t what this business is all about.

Twine has an eclectic assortment of items on sale.
Twine has an eclectic assortment of items on sale.
What’s in a name?

There actually isn’t any twine for sale. But that was never the point, said Melissa Cookman, owner of a most unusual store in Hopewell named Twine.

“I wanted a gender-neutral name,” she said. “Because, if it said like, ‘Gifts and Things,” every man would sit on the bench outside. So, I wanted to have a gender-neutral name and something you weren’t quite sure what it was going to be like inside.”

•••

Cookman wants the store to become a fixture in the Hopewell community she fell in love with a few years back.

“I actually lived in another town about 25 minutes away when I opened the store,” she said. “Now, I live in this town. It’s a great town. Friendly. Small.  Hard to believe we’re a little town in New Jersey. People don’t lock their cars half the time.”

About three years ago, she became a resident.

“There was this old barn falling down and condemnable — I bought it and turned it into my house,” she said. “I’m a very impulsive person, always looking for something new. And I love it.

“I can walk right to work. And people have actually texted me when I’m home and asked, ‘Are you at the store? I need a card.’ And if I can go over, I will.”

It’s just one of the ways the store has become the community.

“We recently added an extra room in the building, and it’s our open studio space,” she said. “It’s for kids after school, it’s $15 for two hours and they can use all of our supplies. On the weekends, it’s $20 an hour.

“And when I say you can use all of our supplies, please understand, it’s all of them. We have hundreds and hundreds of rubber stamps, old photograph boxes to decorate, anything.”

Creating — and community — are key, Cookman said.

“I don’t care if they just come here and draw or do their homework,” she said. “I just wanted a place for kids who aren’t on a sports team can go after school.

“It’s just a great space. You can make a mess and I don’t care. There’s paint on the floor; I don’t care.”

Cookman said the average age of her customer is 9 to 14, “because they’re independent enough that their parents can drop them off and let them shop,” she said.

But, according to Cookman, the store attracts all ages.

“We had a 51-year-old birthday party,” she said. “We’ve had a mom and a daughter come in and make her birthday invitations.

“We want to be a community option. I want it to be a positive experience for everybody. Like an experience, not just pick out a present and go.”

Movie night is another example.

“Although we were a place kids would come if they got locked out of their house because we are a small town, I really wanted to do more with the community. When I bought this property there was a big giant dusty movie screen on it, so we started showing movies outside.

“We started with ‘Harry Potter’ and we charge $10 for an adult and $5 for children with unlimited popcorn and lemonade. We had 100 people here for ‘Harry Potter.’ On five Thursday nights throughout the summer, we’re showing old black-and-whites or old classics. We had people here who brought friends in with cheese and bread and wine. I love that.”

It appears to be working.

“People rarely just come in and grab something and leave,” she said.

•••

Twine is just a short drive from one of Amazon’s growing number of fulfillment centers in the state.

Cookman says her store succeeds because it’s different.

“I don’t know that it’s a throwback to another era, but definitely the customer service aspect is,” she said. “The customer is always right, even when we know they’re wrong. And we’ll always help them and wrap their presents. I had a customer call and say, ‘I totally screwed up, I didn’t do an Easter basket for my kids, what can you do for me?’  So I put together an Easter basket.”

Requests such as these are not unusual, Cookman said.

“We’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but usually there’s someone here and we’ve had people knock on the door and go, ‘Pleaseeee let me in; I need this.’ And, of course, we let them in. So, we’re your neighborhood store. We’re people.”

She has a handful of staff, but she said she never advertises for help. How could she describe the job?

“I’ve actually never put out a sign for ‘now hiring,’ “ she said. “It’s been people coming in or customers.

“You can’t come in and think you’re going to work at this place and it’s just another card store. We’re so much more. There’s a great bakery in Lawrenceville nearby and we get snacks from her every weekend, so when you’re in here shopping we’re feeding you.”

For Cookman, it’s all about the experience.

“They could get online, but why would they want to?” she said. “Books that I tend to sell are books that if you go into a bookstore, they’re not going to be face out, you’d have to look for them. Here, they’re all face out.”

And she and her staff know where everything is.

“There are so many people that come in and say, ‘Well, it’s for my brother-in-law and I don’t really like him and I don’t want to spend more than $25,’ “ she said. “That, to me, is like the best thing because I’ll find something. You can’t get that online.”

Cookman isn’t blind to reality.

She admits she does have an online site, too.

“We just started, we have about five items up so far, we only did it like three months ago, so I’m excited to see that,” she said. “And we’re on Instagram and Facebook and post regularly and have an email list.”

Cookman also has begun making YouTube videos.

“I do 30-second videos talking about my products,” she said. “They’re really funny videos, if I do say so myself.”

•••

Cookman’s son, Rhyder Cookman, an artist from childhood, added his inspiration to the store, working there for a few years before moving out West.

And her daughter, Bailey Cookman, works by her side every day.

“My daughter left her job working at a veterinary hospital doing their inventory management,” Cookman said. “She’s come in and took over the backend stuff.”

Which only leads to the obvious question: What is the future for this family business?

“It’s really cool to have her working with me,” Cookman said. “Maybe someday, when I’m old, she’d take it over.”

The other option would be selling out. Of course, no one would ever confuse Cookman of being a sellout.

She laughs at the idea of a big brand trying to run the store.

“I don’t think they could,” she said. “That’s not me being cocky, but my hand is in every single thing that we collect here. I don’t know how someone else could do it.

“But they should. They should copy me because it’s working, and I’m not trying to be arrogant. For small businesses, it’s hard out there. We’re all struggling. You’ve got Whole Foods and Amazon on one hand and small stores on the other.”

The secret, she said, is being unique.

“You have to give people a reason to come in and buy a book when you can go online and buy a book,” she said. “Maybe the reason is, it’s a really nice environment, or you might get a great cookie. Or we’ll gift wrap it for you or we’ll help you pick it out.

“It’s quite the market these days. It’s complicated, and this store isn’t.”

Adult humor on sale, too

Twine was opened with children in mind. But Melissa Cookman, owner of the unusual retail establishment in Hopewell, said she caters to adults, too. And does it with some bawdy humor. Especially in the greeting card section.

“Many people would say our cards are inappropriate; I think they’re very appropriate,” she said. “A lot of them are really snarky and a lot have the F-word on them, but they’re beautiful letter-print cards.

“My feeling is, you come in this store and you laugh and you just wander around and don’t buy anything, that’s OK, because you’ll probably be back if you had a really good experience.”

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