BRENDA BEHLING: From Ashes to Beauty
My husband and I would drive through town, pass the MVC Eye Care, and the Enterprise Bank, and watch the progress of that stretch of road and wonder about the two historic houses that remained. They have survived the wrecking ball — no small task in this age of growth and progress. But, survive, they have and have been transformed into retail and office space.
At 17 Indian Rock Road is Luckett & Farley. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Luckett & Farley, has been “providing world-class architecture for over 163 years.” I thought that this was an interesting addition to our town’s retail landscape and wanted to find out more. But, then, 19 Indian Rock Road’s house opened with an interior design store, named Willow. This was too much. We both wondered who would want to open a store like that in Windham? And so, I stopped in one day and asked to speak to the owner and met Brenda Behling. I posed my question to Brenda skeptically, asking her why her, why here? And to my surprise she said, there was an interesting story to it all. We planned a time to meet, and she was right. I get goosebumps thinking about it.
We sat down on a beautiful plush sofa on the second level of the store surrounded by the striking pieces from the mind and imagination of Brenda. It’s a comfortable and fun place to poke around and get ideas for a home. And so we started on our conversation.
Brenda is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and went to school for fashion marketing. She has a large and loving family in the area but got a job in New York in the retail marketing division for Kenneth Cole. Oh, girls: who doesn’t have a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes in their closet? Her job was to do events, grand openings of shops, holiday events working directly with Kenneth Cole and his head of retail. This was a dream job, and she said it was the time of her life. And then she said, the last year she was there was in 2001.
“Were you there during 911,” I asked. “Yes,” Brenda said, “I was there.”
This is how she described that day.
“I had just arrived at work, and I was living in Hoboken and would take the ferry across the river and just arrived. I was on the bus, and there was starting to be the buzz about an airplane crash but nobody knew what it was. I got to the office and everybody knew what was happening. I was engaged at the time, so I called my fiancée, who worked in midtown just on the other side of the island. The cell phones just went dead.”
I said, “You were on the phone with him, and phone call dropped?”
Before that happened, Brenda added, “he said, just start running, and I’ll find you.”
“We ran to each other. I ran from the corporate offices on 11th Avenue, and he left his office. It was mayhem. Everybody was trying to get off the island. We found each other and grabbed one another and ran to the riverside. There weren’t enough ways off. We were able to get on a ferry. I don’t remember it taking that long to get on a ferry, but we were in a huge crowd and packed like sardines waiting and waiting. And then there was a big boom. I thought we were being attacked like out of the water like people were going to come out of the water and attack us. It was one of the towers falling. The earth was shaking from it.”
“I made it over to the other side, and we landed a couple of towns down from where we should be. We were covered with soot. Everybody was. We made it home, and I called my mom. Little by little, we connected with everyone. Our apartment was on the river, and all of the debris was coming across the river. Toxic debris covered everything. It was crazy.”
Brenda said that Kenneth Cole told all the employees that it would be up to them if they wanted to come back to work the next day, which she did. She and another friend spent the day gathering masks, gloves any supply a firefighter or first-responder would need. “They were going through everything so quickly. We took the supplies downtown. It was all so horrible.”
Because it was so “haunting” to be in New York, both she and her fiancée wanted a change, and they relocated to Marblehead, Massachusetts, for a couple of years and then onto Waltham, Mass where her now-husband was starting a new company. It was there her two daughters were born, and she was taking photography classes and being a stay at home mom.
She started taking interior design classes through the Harvard Adult Education classes and nurtured her love of design. Brenda and the family eventually moved to Windham, because the cost of housing in Massachusetts is high and so they found their home here.
It was when she started decorating her own home that friends took notice of her talented eye for the mix of antiques and current trends. And when Danielle Ross opened her Windham Orthodontics practice, it was Brenda she turned to for the design of the space.
“Little by little, I started getting clients.” Small jobs turned into large projects.
“I really take the time with clients and go through every space. I try to figure out what is their personality, their family’s personality. When I go into a client’s home, I try to be calm and listen and to know them. Even if they have an old ‘Archie Bunker’ chair, we can work it out.”
This is where we come back around, and I ask why here, why a ‘brick-and-mortar’ business? And, that’s where the Village Center District comes up. The Village Center Place retail and office center development will be built directly behind the two houses that sit at 17 and 19 Indian Rock Road. Her current driveway into her business will become a one-way entrance to the development that will have restaurants, retail stores, and offices.
So the idea of a storefront wasn’t a crazy one. “I’m alone now, but there is more to come. I have a lot of faith in our town and community. I feel obligated to give back as taught by both my parents. Community and neighborhood were ingrained in me. I feel like there’s no place to organically bump into people. You’re always in your car.”
“Every month, we have a charitable contribution mission that we give back to the town or a bigger cause. I want my kids to see this to know that we are blessed. Willow has a mentoring program through the high school for design. We have a new mentee starting this month of a real-life project. She’s chosen to do social media marketing for me.”
“The vision is coming together. But, there are still the sleepless nights as the sole owner. I’m going on a big leap of faith here I try to keep myself calm and ride the wave. I believe in manifesting my own destiny. I get up every morning at 5:30 and set goals and do visualizations, affirmations, and meditations. It’s not an accident that I’m here. I have my goals and watch them. It’s really exciting.”
I can’t leave without asking Brenda about whether she watches one of my favorite programs on television, Project Runway. It’s a contest show that pits clothing designers against one another to win the large cash prize to help them with their own designing business.
“Oh, every week, my daughter and I watch it.” And then she adds, “But a better example would be The Devil Wears Prada movie. That was my life. I was from Boston, and I’ll never forget when I moved to New York, and the head of visual merchandise was like that flamboyant guy in the movie. He came to me after a few weeks of working there. I was from Boston and would wear pearls and a cardigan with a matching top every day. That’s what I was taught to wear at a professional job. He said, “come here Boston, you and the pearls, what’s this all about?” He waved his finger at my clothes. A whole new world opened up to me there, the way I did my clothes, my hair. No better place to be when you are in your twenties. My boss was like Anna Wintour.” (The infamous editor-in-chief of Vogue that the movie was allegedly based upon.) “She was a tough cookie. She was a New Yorker, and I was on my toes with her.”
But now, Brenda works in Windham, New Hampshire, with her mother and her daughter. Her father is the handyman for the business.
“I feel like I’m stronger and wiser and got through everything. It’s all good. There is a lot of optimism about the town. You have to be willing to take a leap of faith. Know better. Do better.
Brenda was right – there was a story.
Brenda Behling and Emily Wall at Willow in Windham, New Hampshire
Willow, 19 Indian Rock Road, Windham, New Hampshire