At Groves Bears, every collector feels at home.
Around 3,000 people reside in the quaint community of Bluffton, Ohio, where Groves Bears has made its home since 1994. With more than 5,000 teddies and other cuddly creations offered, the shop has a teddy bear population greater than the population of Bluffton itself!
“The shop is a truly remarkable store. Floor to ceiling and wall to wall, any type of bear you can think of is in Groves Bears. There is even a section of artist bears,” says Bette, an arctophile from Michigan, who collects antique and classic bears, as well as both old and new Steiff teddies, Boyds bears and artist creations. “The displays are very unique and the variety of bears and stuffed animals is something that you have to see.”
Founded by Don and Sue Groves in 1978, Groves Bears began in an old house in Lima, Ohio, where the couple sold antiques and collectibles. The shop was soon taken over by bears, one of the couple’s favorite collectibles. In 1994, they purchased the current location in Bluffton, Sue’s hometown, and the bear business moved. When Don passed away on Jan. 1, 2005, the store became a mother-daughter partnership, with Sue and their daughter, Robin Wilch, continuing the family business that Don helped build.
Dick Frantz, Steiff Archivist for North America and a personal Steiff collector for more than 30 years, met Don and Sue in Columbus, Ohio, at a trade show in the early 1980s. “I was very impressed with Don Groves and I had a lot of respect for him,” he shares. “I liked his philosophy in business. He was very straightforward and friendly. He made all his customers feel welcome. He never made it just about getting the sale. He often stated that ‘they weren’t his customers but his friends.’
“His wife, Sue, is from the same mold,” he continues. “She shares that same philosophy and I often think customers just stop in for a visit and to get caught up. Robin carries on that same tradition and has expanded into the Internet. She is also very customer-oriented and tries to fulfill their needs.”
Collectors who make the trip to Ohio continue to receive the same special treatment Don and Sue gave each customer since the shop first opened. Bear lovers are also greeted by an astounding assortment of new and antique bears, both manufactured and artist-made. Steiff collectors, in particular, will be amazed at all Groves Bears has to offer. “They handle one of the largest assortments of Steiff in the United States. A collector would be hard pressed not to find what they were looking for there,” Dick notes.
Feels Like Home
For many collectors, a visit to Groves Bears feels a little like coming home. The remarkable variety of bears and other critters is complemented by a welcoming staff of bear lovers always ready to lend a hand. Sue, Robin and the rest of the Groves Bears staff treat each customer as if they are family and recognize how teddy bears can become part of one’s family as well. “Collectors’ faces light up when they find the perfect bear and a warm feeling takes over. Many bears share a lifetime with their owners,” Sue observes.
Sue recalls the first bear that sparked her interest in collecting. “It was an older bear that Don purchased for me at an auction,” she says. “It was a bit dirty and in need of much love and attention. His painstaking cleaning of the bear before he presented it to me made it very special.” That teddy would be the first of many to become part of her personal collection and she is now thrilled to be surrounded by thousands of bears in the shop each day.
Ken Yenke, a collector, appraiser and author from Ohio, has witnessed the astounding assortment of bears firsthand. “Groves has one of the largest inventories of bears and related items on display that I have ever seen,” he asserts. “The shop is very organized and offers a great variety of brands from all over the world. I know collectors feel like kids in a candy store when they first arrive.”
That is a fitting description of how collector Bette felt when she and her husband, Pete, first walked into the shop in November 2003. She was so taken in by the wealth of bears she didn’t even realize her personal connection to the store. Returning six months later, Bette says she had a “déjà vu feeling. Something seemed more than just familiar.”
Bette mentioned to Sue that her cousin used to be Bluffton’s chief of police in the 1960s. “When I told her his name, she was floored!” Bette recalls. “On the side of building is a painting of Bluffton’s history and my cousin is the first person painted there! Right across the street from the store is the police station that I had visited him back in the ’60s when I was a child.” The exterior of the building has a hand-painted mural of downtown Bluffton during the early 1900s. Painted by a renowned local artist named Oscar Velasquez, it includes buildings, vehicles and actual townspeople from that time.
Being collectors themselves, Sue and Robin understand what it is like to be drawn to a special bear. They enjoy coming to work each day and being surrounded by that which they love. In particular, they like building relationships with their customers, both in the shop and through the Internet.
“People go to where they feel liked, appreciated, comfortable and cared for. Sue and Robin are professionals who cherish the ongoing relationship much more than a quick sale,” Ken observes.
“It’s a warm atmosphere and hard to describe if you have never been here,” Sue says. “With our huge success from our website, we have an entirely new type of customer. Although we never see most of them and it’s hard to hug a computer, Groves Bears is keeping up with the times, and the Internet also brings much enjoyment to customers we normally could not reach.”
Robin also recognizes how the Internet has given an entirely new group of collectors access to Groves Bears’ offerings. She cherishes the special relationships she has with both the online customers and collectors who visit the shop. “It’s more than a fulltime job, it’s my life” Robin says. “When I’m done at the store I don’t stop working. I like the challenge; it’s always interesting and easy to be completely absorbed in what I am doing.
“I have made many new relationships over the Internet with customers from everywhere in the world. I feel just as close to some of our Internet customers as I do to those who come in,” she adds. “Often I receive phone calls from them just to say hello and ask how things are going. I know most of their dogs’ names, how many kids they have and where they are going for vacation. I know who is sick in the family and who is getting married. It’s just as personal and I don’t even know what most of my Internet customers look like. Many have sent photos to me of their favorite bears and their pets, so it can be lots of fun.”
Meeting collectors in person is particularly special for Robin and Sue, who normally hold several events each year at Groves: two Steiff events, one antique appraisal event with Ken Yenke, and two Boyds events. To make room for new arrivals, one or two large sales are often held throughout the year as well.
“Keeping up with new products and having special events and sales will keep a customer returning to the same store,” Bette says. “We drive two hours to Groves Bears and won’t buy a new Steiff anywhere else. Robin and her staff take care of their customers in a warm, friendly manner and in such a way that you want to go back.”
With such an outstanding reputation and a seemingly endless offering of teddies, Groves Bears will no doubt be welcoming new members into their family of satisfied collectors for years to come.
Groves Bears, 104 N. Main St., Bluffton, OH 45817; 419-358-8559