Local gift chain Swoozie's reopens two Atlanta stores, plans for more growth

For two months, there was no such thing as Swoozie's, the Atlanta-based paper and gift retailer. For several months prior to that -- when a liquidation sale that began in March emptied the stores of all merchandise and fixtures --  the company might as well as have ceased to exist.

President Kelly Plank-Dworkin, who always prided Swoozie's on building relationships with customers who walked in the door, said the liquidation was "devastating." Long-time customers coming in for housewarming gifts or wedding invitations didn't get the service they were used to.

"I couldn't even shop in the shopping center. It was very painful," she said. "Every day, I had to wake up and put one foot in front of the next, decide what to do."

What Plank-Dworkin did was work hard to save the store, which she described as her life. She separated the intellectual property -- Swoozie's name and concept -- from a bankruptcy filing. Just after the liquidation ended, it was sold at auction to the Colorado private equity firm Gart Capital.

Today, two Swoozie's stores have reopened in Atlanta along with five others across the South.

"It's sort of like a bad dream and I woke up," Plank-Dworkin said. "It's energizing."

The store, which first opened in 2001, was designed for the busy, socially engaged woman, Plank-Dworkin said. Because time was important to her, she wanted to create a place where customers could find gifts for cocktail parties and children's birthday parties in the same place. Swoozie's sells cards, wrapping paper and college-themed dinnerware for tailgating. Customers can also buy chenille stuffed animals and napkins with clever sayings.

Ken Gart, a partner at Gart Capital, said Swoozie's had come on his radar before it went bankrupt. He noticed the passion and enthusiasm that customers felt for what was then a 43-store chain.

In five years, Gart said, Swoozie's could have between 20 and 30 stores in the South. He questions, though, whether it can prosper in other parts of the country. In part, it was the acquisition of gift shop chain Blue Tulip out of bankruptcy in the Northeast that brought Swoozie's down.

The 2007 death of David Dworkin, the company's CEO and Plank-Dworkin's husband, and the general economic conditions beginning in 2008 all combined to push Swoozie's over the brink, Plank-Dworkin said.

Since a soft opening in the middle of August, the stores have performed at or above expectations, Gart said. A grand opening is scheduled for later in the month.

"Kelly has performed magic," Gart said. "She is the heart and soul of the business. I wouldn't have done it without her."

For her part, Plank-Dworkin said she was taken by surprise by the bankruptcy and, after the filing, never had any idea that Swoozie's would ever come back. It was concern for her employees and an outpouring of support from customers that made her try to save the chain.

At the reopened stores, many former employees have returned. And Plank-Dworkin said with the bankruptcy, she took the opportunity to reconsider the store more carefully, adding wider aisles for women pushing strollers and focusing more on customization, like on-the-spot printing.

Going forward, she said, the size of the chain doesn't matter as long as the brand can live on.

"We get a chance to be reborn," Plank-Dworkin said. "It means the world to me."