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Welcome to the Year of the Hippo











Jennifer Meier was a teacher in Waterford for almost a decade before she opened the downtown Lake Orion gift shop, Green Hippo Gifts. After having two kids, she decided to stop teaching and stay home, but the idea of opening her own carefully curated gift boutique kept nagging at her.

"I had always talked about wanting to open up a gift shop," she says. "One day I was walking around downtown Lake Orion and saw a storefront that was available, so I called my dad he said, 'Do it. Call them. Be persistent and keep calling them.' And that's just how it happened!"

She didn't know yet what exactly she would carry in her store, but she knew children's books would be a big component. She has a master's degree in the art of teaching reading and was a reading specialist as a teacher, who also professes to "adore" children's books.

"I knew children's books would be part of the shop, and they make great gifts. But I didn't want to specialize too much in one area because it would get boring."

So Green Hippo sells gifts for any occasion, baby through adult, with a large section of children's books. The store also has a wide selection of locally-made and handmade items, something Meier has been very passionate about supporting.

"I never would have predicted how much influence I could have as a small business owner to support other small business owners and makers, both locally and throughout the country," she says. "I really put a lot of effort into supporting local makers and handmade items. I used to go to every single craft fair I could drive to, and if anything stuck out to me I would ask, 'Can I sell some of your items in our shop?' Some of these people had never done wholesale before and would drive our orders to the shop themselves. Now, three years later, they've become so big they're shipping items, they're wholesaling, their products are carried in other stores."

Meier speaks with great excitement about these small businesses she helped support, and even helped grow. She also takes pride in offering items in the Green Hippo that customers can't find anywhere else, while at the same time supporting small businesses that might not otherwise have the means to get distribution to other stores.

The Green Hippo carries a lot of Michigan-made and Michigan-themed items as well as hand-made greeting cards, candles, soaps, and jewelry. They also carry jewelry items from the popular national retailer Alex & Ani, an assortment of home goods, and are about to start offering clothing items from Lakegirl. "I feel like I've got so much better at buying new and different items," she says.

Green Hippo also has a large baby section and a large selection of gift books and novelty books in addition to children's books. They do not, however, carry books for adults, and Meier's reasoning for this makes absolute sense.

"I found that adult books don't do very well here; there's just such a variety available and people all have different preferences with genres, and they have their Kindles. With kids' books people will just ask, 'I need a book for a third-grader' and I can supply that. With adult books I don't have the space to provide the kind of depth of genres really needed."

But, because she is very much a reader at heart, she found a happy solution for this: she offers a free library for adult books. People can take books from the free library – a lot of which is supplied from her own basement of books – or leave some. 

"I feel like that's filling that niche," she explains. "I feel that our customers are readers, I'm just not able to provide the selection. Some people come in just for that. If I can provide them a place to get good free books, that's fine by me. I'm happy to support reading habits."

Meier had no business background before opening the store: everything has been a learning process of trial and error. Now, she says, she'll have customers come in who haven't visited in a couple of years and remark how completely different the store is, which she takes as a compliment.

"I really get to know my customers – their lives, their traditions, their families. Now when I'm buying products I have certain people in mind, where before I was just buying for an imaginary customer who doesn't exist," she says. "I was never a social person before. This has really brought me out of my shell. I adore our customers and I would do anything for them. I have a mom who can't get out of her house so I'll bring items to her house. A lot of customers have requests for certain things and I do my best to get them in the shop."

She says she has customers who stop in every week just to chat, and she loves that.

"What I've always loved about stores like ours is that it's something to do. Even if you're not looking to buy something it's fun to look at all the items and come in to chat. It also adds pressure because I feel like I always need to be changing it up to keep it interesting. We need to always keep it exciting by getting new products in and making sure the displays always on point."

She's obviously doing something right, because come October 1 of this year Green Hippo will be celebrating four years in business. Also this year, Meier has been recognized as a member of Oakland County Executive's Elite 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.

"I feel like this is going to be a great year," she says. "They say it's the Year of the Dog, but I say it's the Year of the Hippo!"
 

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