Gietzes

"When we used to come up here on weekends, we used to hike a lot, and it hit me: What’s the No. 1 thing people are asking me when I give them gifts?" Michelle Gietz says of her and husband Ken's Williamstown establishment. " 'Where’d you get that?' That’s where it really came from. People constantly ask us, 'Where’d you get that?' It’s become a 'Who’s on First?' joke."

PITTSFIELD — Looking for a fine art jigsaw puzzle? A pair of bugnoculars? Nontraditional stuffed animals like armadillos, geckos or lobsters? How about an illuminated football?

All of these items, and lots of similar material, can be found at a small quirky toy/gift/puzzle store at the bottom of Spring Street in Williamstown that is run two by transplanted New Yorkers who have kept their small business afloat through various economic ups and downs, including COVID, for 30 years.

The store is Where’d You Get That!?, and the owners are Ken and Michelle Gietz, who have been married for 38 years and who, in conversation, come across as colorful as the items they sell.

We spoke with the Gietzes recently about how they started their business, how it has evolved, why Michelle is obsessed with toys and how their small store survived the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: How did you get involved in the toy business, and why did you decide to open your own store?

Ken: My wife had enjoyed a store in Long Island [the Gietzes originally are from Locust Valley, N.Y., on Long Island’s north shore]. When we decided to make a change in life to come up here [in 1991], we wanted to do the same for a similar kind of store.

Michelle: I’ve always been obsessed with toys. If you saw our house where we live, Ken can hardly move because of all the things we have related to the toy business.

Q: What do you mean when you say you’re obsessed with toys?

Michelle: I love the playful side of things, and how things work. ... There’s a whole lot of factors that go into why people love the whole aspect of toys. ... But, when we moved up here, we had to assess where the needs were, and from a business standpoint we created a business that we thought could be successful because no one else was really addressing it in the same way that we planned to. So, it has evolved. It’s not just a toy business anymore.

Q: So, what would you call it?

Michelle: When we came to Spring Street [this is the store’s third location in Williamstown] and the college [Williams College is located at the top of the the street], it shifted a little more equally to toys and gifts, and then we got more heavily involved in games. So, we are what we are today, a toy/game/and gift store that pays attention to all the toys, too.

Q: So, how did you decide what to sell?

Ken: It was basically by talking to the people who wanted to come to the store, but we knew through doing research on the area itself that Williamstown was set up not only just for the college, but The Clark Art [Museum], the Williamstown Theatre Festival ... so, we had to find merchandise for basically four different components in the area.

Q: Students, tourists ... what were the other two?

Ken: You have locals who lived in Williamstown themselves, and you have passersby.

Q: How did you come up with the store's name?

Ken: Names. That's Michelle's forte.

Michelle: When we used to come up here on weekends, we used to hike a lot, and it hit me: What’s the No. 1 thing people are asking me when I give them gifts? "Where’d you get that?" That’s where it really came from. People constantly ask us, “Where’d you get that?” It’s become a “Who’s on First?” joke.

Over the years, I got really concerned. How relevant is this name; it’s a really long one. It took awhile to get the right graphics in print when we were doing a lot of print media. ... Out of curiosity, what kind of picture are you getting of this place?

Q: I've been to your store before, but not in a long time. ... I know you've always had a lot of exotic gifts ...

Michelle: We’ve always had a lot of stuff in here, but it was really organized, and believe it or not, there’s a flow to this store.

We always have to keep in mind that no matter how much we need here, it’s got to fit within certain parameters. And what are those parameters? Certainly, early learning and development is one of them. ... We’re dealing with some brilliant academics, and their families and people who are jaded buyers from out of town, and we want them [to come here] with the sense that, "I can still see several things that I’ve never seen before." That’s really what happens when people get in here.

Q: So, how do you achieve that?

Michelle: You’ve got to be on your game. You don’t have to be the newest. ... That’s the one thing I wanted to protect us from. But, we have some of the best-thought-out ideas. We were the first, I think, of anyone within 100 miles to have this selection of jigsaw puzzles that we have. ... You’ve probably never seen knowledge cards anywhere else. They’re in our gift area. They’re not from the most mainstream publishers, but put these trivia products together and everyone loves them. ...

We have mechanical puzzles. We’ve had them since we opened here on Spring Street. That’s 14 years' worth. Who told us about them? The computer science department on campus [at Williams]. That’s a whole other reason we like to be here, because we can get their perspective, too. ... It's not a typical store mix. Our philosophy is simple: How can I make this a little different? And that’s what we’ve tried to create here.

Q: Why did you move from Long Island to the Berkshires?

Ken: Probably because we didn’t wish to sit in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. ... There are over 5 million people on that little island, and you couldn’t get from anywhere to anywhere in less than half an hour. ... We used to come up here on weekends to visit one of my cousins, who had a cabin.

Q: What did you do before you came here?

Ken: I had a detergent-manufacturing company. Prior to that, I worked for Amerada Hess Corp.; I did manufacturing over in Germany for a number of years.

Michelle: I started in IT [information technology]. It wasn't called that back then; it was called data processing.

Q: It sounds like you had a lot of previous business experience.

Michelle: The one thing that did for us was that we both honed a lot of business skills. ... Ken has a different skill set than I have, and I’m certainly not capable of doing what Ken does in the business. He is the operational control person who [knows how] to turn on a dime, to pivot and make sure [they received] whatever the government was offering during COVID. He’s the one who keeps the place together. ... Ken’s the cook in the house, too.

Q: So, what do you do?

Michelle: I’m the creative one. Ken’s creative, too, but that’s what I do morning, noon and night — inventory. Planning for the store, finding out how things will work, pointing us in a new direction.

With all of our skills, that’s how we’ve managed to operate. ... We've always worked on our skills to be able to make a decision, handle problems, multilevel problems. When COVID hit, Ken and I looked at each other and said, "What's the plan?" You've got to have a plan. That's always critical.

Q: So, how did you survive the pandemic?

Michelle: We were here every single day in this building, and our audience knew it, so they could call us or email us. When COVID hit, we had very little going on on our website. But, Ken assessed the situation and he immediately dived in, and with the help of one of our teenage employees and the person in accounting who assisted us, they put together 1,900 products online on our website and had it up and running within two hours ... without any help.

Ken: [People] were sitting outside the store in folding chairs and rocking chairs and we'd be rolling out carts of puzzles for them to look at. They weren't permitted in the store. We were the only two people in the store ...

Michelle: ... We were offering them blankets and lunch. See? That's how you keep your business rolling.