It happened one day about six years ago. Nancy O’Keefe’s husband found an advertisement in the newspaper offering for sale a quaint cookware store in downtown Allentown.
Joseph Colosi, a biology professor at DeSales University, picked up the paper and told his wife, “You can do this!”
The rest is history. O’Keefe, who had no retail experience, left behind a job as assistant to the president of DeSales University, and bought the highly-regarded La Belle Cuisine on South 9th Street in Allentown.
And there was more to this “mid-life” change.
Since the acquisition of the fine cookware store in 2005, she moved it to an historic home at 447 Chestnut Street in Emmaus in 2008.
And with her daughter and son gradually moving out of her home in Lower Saucon Township, she renovated the cozy second and third floors above La Belle Cuisine in Emmaus. And then she and her husband moved into the site, selling the Lower Saucon home.
Now, to greet customers, she often steps down a stairway from the second floor with Lili, her English setter dog, at her side. Carole Larson, who worked for the business when O’Keefe bought it, is the only employee.
“We stayed as long as we could in Allentown,” O’Keefe said. The store had opened there in 1977 under the ownership of Catherine Elwell.
In the store – which calls itself “everything kitchen’’ on its website, customers find cookware, kitchen tools, French porcelain, European linens, and culinary gadgets.
“We were one of the last retailers in Allentown, and at some point you have to listen to you customers,’’ she said. “People wouldn’t come in for evening hours. So we came here and the floodgates opened.
“Money magazine identified Emmaus as one of the top places to live in the country. This is not a mall-type store, it’s a specialty store. So this building was a perfect fit.
“Emmaus is very pedestrian. The people are friendly. They are comfortable on the sidewalks. And there are many other successful retailers.”
The second half of the story is the new living arrangements.
“We were living in Lower Saucon, but we knew we would eventually live here,’’ she said. “Our house there was too big. And we had too many properties.
“The Emmaus house, built in 1865, was empty when we bought it. We did a lot of renovations to the top two floors, which had two bathrooms and two bedrooms. We found a wood worker who had expertise in old buildings.”
O’Keefe said the home was once a blacksmith shop and also owned by a school teacher named Picock over the years.
“It’s the old house that we wanted,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve been living here since October.”
While sales have been stronger in Emmaus, the biggest seller at La Belle Cuisine is something it sells on its web site, she said.
“Our hottest item is a ‘Moscow Mule Mug,’ a copper mug used for drinking,” OKeefe said. “Legend has it that a Russian came to California. He was drinking vodka and another fella was drinking ginger beer. They put them together in a mug, and this mug was born.”
The Moscow Mule Mug is on sale for $19.95, according to the web site.
“The irony is that in web sales, customers don’t care where the company is located,” she said.