Couple return to retail  with Smithville gift shop

Dale Duff talks about some of the musical and animated clocks available at Mrs. Duff's Gift Shoppe in Smithville. The business grew as a home-based business, then expanded to a shop in Barnegat before moving to Smithville.

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Dale and Lu Anne Duff had separate careers for years - she in medical research, he in furniture refinishing - until Lu Anne started making seashell centerpieces in a spare bedroom of their home in 1994.

That side business was transformed into a brick-and-mortar gift store in Barnegat in 1996, one that grew quickly enough that it employed both of them.

So when they received an offer to sell the business several years ago, they did and made a short-lived attempt of semi-retiring to Florida.

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But there was one problem.

"We were only 55, and we got bored to death," Lu Anne Duff said. "The first couple months were great (in Orlando). My dream was to go down and work in a gift shop in Disney World. … We rented a place for eight weeks, I got hired for Disney and worked at a gift shop in Animal Kingdom, but when it was time to buy a house down there … we were like, do we really want to spend the rest of our life here? And the reality was we didn't."

That brought the couple, who have been married for 32 years, back to New Jersey and back into business at Mrs. Duff's Gift Shoppe in Smithville in Galloway Township.

The shop, which has been in Smithville for about two years, moved to a larger location a few months ago.

Mrs. Duff's carries a 50-50 mix of estate-bought items and furniture with new retail items, such as musical wall clocks, illumined canvas paintings, seasonal decor and gifts.

The eye-catching clocks are made by Rhythm Watch Co., which since its 1950 founding in Japan has made and sold more than 20 million clocks worldwide.

Estate items represented a new part of the business for the gift shop veterans, but one they say complemented the inventory nicely.

"We didn't want to look like a dusty old antique shop," she said. "We wanted it to be pretty and fresh and have interesting things, but we didn't want it to have dusty old stuff."

The couple says the shop has been frequently busy, so much so they are hiring a second employee.

On a recent weekday morning, customers shuffled in and out to browse and talk with the owners, including an old veteran telling war stories.

"The trick is treating people nice so they want to come back," Dale Duff said. "Two weeks ago a guy and his wife brought a big dog - that looked like a horse - on the porch. I had a big urn out there and the dog knocked it over and broke it in a thousand pieces … but what I going to do, charge them?

"They were shocked we were nice to them. I just said next time you need gifts please come here," he said.

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