Danny Reynolds loved fashion growing up, but it didn’t dawn on him to follow in his parents’ footsteps and run Stephenson’s in downtown Elkhart until he was in his final year of college—pursuing a career in radio broadcasting.
"I had all the attitude and the makings of a rock star except I had very, very little talent. So I said if I couldn’t do it myself, I’d play other people’s music," he said.
He hosted a music show on WVPE in high school and majored in broadcasting and business at Vincennes University, but eventually decided that broadcast wasn’t for him after all. So, he transferred to IUPUI and earned degrees in journalism and psychology.
Danny Reynolds followed his parents’ footsteps 23 years ago when he became the owner of Stephenson’s in downtown Elkhart. Photos by Jason Bryant.
In college, he met the woman who is now his wife, and Reynolds started thinking more seriously about the future. His dad had been running Stephenson’s since 1964 and was ready to retire, even though his mom wanted to continue arranging the window displays (which she still does to this day
). Reynolds isn’t sure who brought up the topic first, but he decided that he would move back home and take over the family business.
"I never really thought about this as a business or a fashion business, it was just what Dad and Mom did all the time," Reynolds said. "I graduated on a Friday (in 1994) and I started on Monday. I’ve been doing it ever since."
At the time, there were several boutiques and clothing stores in downtown Elkhart, but malls were booming. Reynolds’ father got phone calls and offers to join Concord, Pierre Moran and University Park malls, but he turned them all down because he wanted to stay in the same place Stephenson’s first opened in 1931.
Reynolds did too. He thrives on challenges and has always been determined to keep the business on Main Street, even as other stores closed or moved away.
"Early in my career, a store that’s no longer here was closing their doors and the owner did an interview with The Elkhart Truth. He said that it just isn’t possible to run a small store on Main Street anymore," Reynolds said. "I wrote in and said, ‘Yes it is. Watch me.’"
And that’s exactly what he did. When mail-order catalogs and home shopping TV networks became more popular in the late 90s, Reynolds decided Stephenson’s needed to be a niche store. He started selling formal dresses for proms, weddings and other special occasions as well as everyday clothes for adult women. He knew girls and young women still want to try on dresses and that they want special attention from a store attendant they trust.
Danny Reynolds, who owns Stephenson’s, helps a bride try on a wedding dress at his store in downtown Elkhart. Photo by Jason Bryant.
That special attention extends beyond the 15,000 square feet of retail space that Stephenson’s occupies downtown.
"We’re too big to be a little mom-and-pop shop, but we’re much much smaller than these mass merchants. We fill this void where we have resources like a New York City buying office, that a little one or two person boutique can’t do. But we know our top customers’ names and we know their families, their kids. When we’re in New York, we’re sometimes handpicking things for customers. We’d see something and say, ‘Oh that’d be perfect for Mrs. Smith,’ and then we text them pictures. That’s fun and that’s something that the big guys just can’t offer."
He believes part of his job is "taking Seventh Avenue and translating that to Main Street Elkhart," he said.
"I love to eyeball trends and see which ones will really happen. It’s fun to watch what’s coming and kind of filter or adapt that to our world (in Elkhart)."
Reynolds’ dedication to his customers and to Stephenson’s is why he was named one of America’s Retail Champions
by the National Retail Federation a few months ago, though he’s quick to point out that the award belongs to his staff at Stephenson’s as much as it does him.
"I’m very, very fortunate to be here, surrounded by the driven, talented people who share a vision, who share a passion for this small shop to work," Reynolds said. "That award was 86 years of blood, sweat and tears. It’s Connie, who’s worked on our floor for 50 years. My parents had a lot to do with it. I was honored to receive that award, but I was really doing it on behalf of everyone else."
The award was made even more special when Vice President Mike Pence, the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, gave a shoutout to Reynolds in his remarks.
"Now, I’d like to take a moment to recognize all the retail champions who with us here today, especially Danny Reynolds, from Stephenson’s, in Elkhart, Indiana," Pence said in the middle of his speech.
When he finished, Pence got off stage and started shaking hands. Reynolds made his way to the front and Pence sees his name tag as they’re about to shake hands.
"Suddenly, he grabs me and he gives me a bro hug. He grabs my phone out of my hand, and he started taking selfies (with me)," Reynolds said. "As he started to walk away, I turned and he grabbed my arm and said, ‘Hey, say hi to back home for me.’"
The experience made Reynolds only more passionate about meeting the challenges facing retail stores and making sure that Stephenson’s is around for many more years to come.
Stephenson’s has survived through the ebbs and flows of the economy and downtown Elkhart. Reynolds can’t imagine the store being anywhere else.
"We’ve had offers, opportunities and temptations to move and to change, but we’ve been loyal to downtown Elkhart because downtown Elkhart has been so loyal to us for many years," he said.
The only transition he sees in the years to come involves his oldest child.
"My daughter is a senior in high school and she wants to get into fashion merchandising and design. She’s kind of got it in her blood," Reynolds said. "She’s been working here all summer all the time. There could be an eventual transition there in a number of years."
For now, Reynolds is focused on the growth of downtown Elkhart. He’s energized by new businesses and restaurants opening along the Gateway Mile and what that could mean for Main Street and for Stephenson’s.
He’s excited about projects like The Foundry apartments and the Elkhart Health Fitness Aquatics and Community Center, as well as the calendar of downtown Elkhart events that seems to be constantly growing.
"I want more reasons for people to come downtown. I want more of what we’re getting now. More retail stores, more entertainment, more restaurants, more events," he said. "With more people, there’s more opportunity, there’s more customers. There’s more opportunity to innovate and try new things."