Having an eye for the old and the new.
Located on the south bank of the Missouri River, 110 E. High St. has been home to Southbank Gift Company for almost 19 years. Inside this historic building, constructed in 1898, unique gifts are artistically displayed in the nooks of their custom wooden cabinetry built in the early 1900s.
“You could never recreate where we are,” says Southbank’s owner, Jill Bednar. “There’s nothing like it.”
The same rule applies to the merchandise adorning the shelves of the carefully curated shop, which has grown and changed throughout the years. When it first opened in 2002, the shop’s concept was based on shrink-wrapped gift baskets — still a staple of Bednar’s business today.
“I was helping a good friend downtown at her stationery store, and I started making gift baskets for people when I realized there was a need for it,” she says. “It grew from there, and pretty soon, I had outgrown that space. I decided to take the plunge and start my own business.”
The south bank of the Missouri River was the perfect location for Southbank Gift Company, as Bednar says she had always dreamed of traveling to the Left Bank of Paris. The shop’s bee logo is also the perfect marriage of Bednar’s love of all things French and Southbank’s hometown feel — the bee is a French symbol of hard work and industry, and also Missouri’s state insect.
While the store’s basic premise has remained the same over the years, Bednar says the merchandise and gifting options have adjusted to accommodate customer desires and trends in gift-giving. She still sells the shrink-wrapped gift baskets that first launched her business, but she now also offers Bee Boxes, which are similar to the subscription boxes that have become popular. Bee Box selections change frequently, but past offerings included the “Beers and Birdies” Bee Box — filled with golf socks, a set of three golf balls, a can of winter lager, and a golfer’s necessity kit — and a wine and cheese pairing Bee Box filled with gourmet crackers, roasted garlic onion jam, white fig spread, and cranberry wine.
“We take a box and do a small collection of things that are all related in a theme, then put a lid on top with a bow and a garnish,” she says. “That is how gift baskets have evolved, and younger people relate to that better than a basket, which might seem more old-fashioned to younger shoppers.”
In response to customer requests, Bednar recently obtained a liquor license, allowing her to offer even more robust gifting options and themes.
“People would ask for a bottle of wine in a gift basket, and we couldn’t do that,” she says. “Now we can offer them wine and everything to go with it.”
Bednar has also added Mackenzie-Childs merchandise to the shelves at Southbank. She says the line, available in Kansas City and St. Louis, hasn’t previously been available for purchase in Mid-Missouri, and she believes the company’s quality and customer service is especially appealing to her customer base.
“I try to trust my instinct on whether I think people like what we bring in just by listening and observing, and from people showing me pictures of their homes and being able to envision whether something would look good for a wide variety of people,” she says. “I’m always looking for things that are relatable to the people in my town.”
While Bednar always knew her merchandise would grow and change over the years, she says she would have never predicted that she would become an Annie Sloan chalk paint stockist, meaning she’s officially trained and licensed to sell Annie Sloan products and teach classes using Annie Sloan techniques.
“Everything in my displays and in my home comes from estate sales or flea markets,” Bednar says. “I was raised learning to upcycle and repaint and redo things because we had to. My mom was really good at it, so it was part of my nature.”
When Bednar heard about Annie Sloan chalk paint, a paint that goes on evenly and sticks to all surfaces without peeling and without using harsh chemicals to strip old finishings or to clean brushes, she drove to Springfield and bought a can. She says she couldn’t believe how easy it was to use and decided that others in Mid-Missouri probably had a need for Annie Sloan products as well.
“I became an Annie Sloan stockist in 2014, when the paint had only been in the U.S. since 2010,” she says. “It was a fairly new paint invented 30 years ago by Annie Sloan, an English artist, that can be used to cover glass, vinyl, metal, fabric, and previously painted items. I took my training, became a stockist, started teaching classes, and here we are today.”
In 2017, Bednar’s dream of visiting the Left Bank of Paris finally became a reality when she was invited to study with Annie Sloan at her studio. Bednar described the once-in-a-lifetime trip as incredibly inspiring.
“I’ve always had a love for old things, and old over there is nothing like we think of as old here,” she says. “Going into the shops and seeing the shopkeepers — it’s almost an art form.”
As a stockist, Bednar teaches classes on how to refinish furniture using various techniques and Annie Sloan products. Since 2014, 856 students have participated in three-hour small group sessions held in a DIY space in the back of Southbank, and Bednar says she especially loves helping people reimagine and revamp items from their past.
Though the DIY space is not currently in use because of COVID-19, Bednar hopes to begin offering the workshops again by summer. Becoming an Annie Sloan stockist and teaching painting techniques also led to another new adventure for Bednar — opening an extension of Southbank Gift Company next door, named Le Bee Marché.
“We would paint these beautiful pieces, but with the antique cabinetry in Southbank that isn’t moveable, there is no room to display furniture, so it was hard,” she says. “Going next door is an extension of my creativity and letting people see what can be done. Le Bee Marché is where people can see pieces of furniture painted using the Annie Sloan method, estate sale finds, and upcycled treasures. Some people don’t want to paint themselves, but they can buy a piece.”
Open on the fourth weekend of every month, Bednar’s goal with Le Bee Marché is to offer a new and fresh experience every time customers visit — along with price points that appeal to a variety of audiences. With her close friend Tuck Van Dynes’ help, that goal is becoming a reality.
“She enjoys the painting process, so we talk about the piece, and then she carries out the vision,” Bednar says. “Tuck is retired, and she says Southbank is her place to go every day and be part of something.”
In addition to her ever-changing and growing inventory, Bednar put a lot of thought and effort into creating an appealing and unique space with an upscale feel.
“It has a European flair to it with a hand-painted floor and with big harlequin squares that sets off the space,” she says. “Many people have said they feel like they’re in New Orleans, but the prices aren’t big city prices. There is everything from furniture to lamps that have been reworked and repainted to give a fresh look. There is a nice surprise every time.”
As her stock of upcycled pieces increases, Bednar is also stocking additional Annie Sloan products, like waxes and transfers, to help customers further enhance and personalize pieces.
“[With people] being homebound and having to look at something that has been bugging them for a while — even on a tight budget, they see there is something that can be done to freshen up their homes with a can of paint or a transfer, and I feel like they’re doing that during COVID-19,” she says. “It’s important as a business owner to read those changes and figure out how I can be of help, how I can fulfill a need.”
The past year has been a period of positive changes for Southbank. Bednar also launched a website, thanks to the necessity brought on by the pandemic and a longtime employee with web building experience.
“I always wanted a website, and we were working on it, but it wasn’t ready to go,” Bednar says. “Then COVID-19 hit, and we went live with it. I have a great person who helped me build my website from scratch, and it’s amazing. I’m fortunate to know some super talented people who love Southbank as much as I do.”
As she looks back on Southbank’s nearly 19 years on the south bank of the Missouri River, she says being able to pivot and be responsive to customers and current trends has been key to making it the perfect one-stop shopping destination.
“I don’t know what else is out there that I don’t already carry or haven’t tried,” Bednar says. “You can buy a jar of pesto sauce, a can of paint, or a cute sweater all in the same place.”