With “retirement sale” signs bannering her Old Town Square storefront, Ann Stephens looked up from her work behind the glowing display cases of turquoise bolo ties, silver money clips and shelves of handmade Native American rings, bracelets and necklaces Friday morning.
Dressed in a crisp white blouse and khaki pants, Ann’s simple attire was offset by gleaming pieces from her own jewelry collection — a sparkling silver bracelet, an heirloom silver and turquoise pin, a pair of rings and a silver pendant necklace inlaid with a stack of small, multicolored stones.
I was there to discuss her pending retirement and the forthcoming closure of her store, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, which has been a must-stop for Native American jewelry, art and artifacts since opening at 3 Old Town Square in 1993.
Ann obliged, dutifully running me through the 27-year history of Meanwhile Back at the Ranch and the factors that finally precipitated her decision to retire this year, the COVID-19 pandemic included.
But it wasn’t until I asked Ann about her necklace — the silver one, with eye-catching multicolored stones — that she truly came alive.
It’s a cornrow necklace, she explained excitedly, ushering me over to a display stand in the southeast corner of her shop. Pulling a similar piece from its shelf, she pointed out the pendant’s colorful and delicately stacked stones — turquoise, coral, labradorite, gaspeite.
Soon, another piece — a thick silver cuff — caught Ann’s eye and she pulled it from its display stand. She slipped the bracelet onto my wrist with ease and let it rest there momentarily before deciding it wasn’t my style.
She would know. After all, her life has largely revolved around this store and its contents for the better part of three decades.
When asked how she feels about retiring and saying goodbye to it all, Ann finds the words easily.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “(This store) is my home and I love every minute in it. I love the customers that come in. It’s so exciting to see them walk out with something nice.”
Ann and her late husband Joe Stephens opened Meanwhile Back at the Ranch back when empty stores were easy to come by in Old Town Fort Collins.
“Fort Collins 30 years ago — there were empty storefronts just like today,” Ann said. “There was nothing going (on).”
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Joe had spent his childhood in Colorado Springs and grew up visiting his grandmother’s ranch in southern Colorado. There, his grandmother and mother instilled in him a love for Native American jewelry, art and artifacts.
Joe’s family moved to Italy when he was 13 and eventually settled in Switzerland, where he and Ann met. The two got married and, after living in Ann’s native Germany for a while, returned to Joe’s home state of Colorado.
Joe parlayed his love of Native American art and jewelry into a business when he started selling items he purchased during trips to the Southwest at state fairs.
“Since he was a businessman and a good looking one also, and a smart one and a kind one — just the wonder man — he did very well,” Ann said.
But Joe tired of the lifestyle of a traveling salesman and wanted to put down roots. Thus, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch was born.
Joe and Ann opened the store chock-full of handmade Native American jewelry — “it had to be handmade,” she said — as well as artifacts and artwork.
“(We) opened up the door and people were buying from day one,” Ann recalled. “Since then, the same customers shop here.”
Joe was a skilled merchandise buyer, and Ann was an experienced jewelry salesperson. Together, they would go on regular road trips to New Mexico, where they would purchase handmade jewelry, pottery, Navajo weavings, Zuni fetish carvings and other artifacts.
Like their buying trips, running the shop was a team effort.
“He was the charmer, you know,” Ann said. “And I was the busy woman,” working behind the scenes.
That easy rhythm, however, came to a halt in 2017 when Joe died of cancer. The couple had been married for 53 years.
“I kept the store just in memory of my husband,” Ann said.
The buying trips the couple once took together suddenly became solo ventures for Ann. They just weren’t the same, she said.
And, with Joe gone, the dynamic of the shop also changed, she added.
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After mulling over the idea of selling the shop and retiring back in January, Ann said the COVID-19 pandemic led to her decision to simply close. She plans to sell off her inventory with an ongoing 15% off retirement sale and be out of the shop’s building by the end of the year.
Any items she doesn’t sell by then will be sold online using a website that’s still in the works, Ann added.
Once those final pieces are sold, Ann said she plans to fully retire from sales. She has a big yard and garden to tend to as well as simple retirement plan: “to find myself again.”
In the meantime, she’s closing this long-time chapter with each final jewelry sale and with each customer who comes into reminisce about Meanwhile Back at the Ranch.
Pulling out a silver and turquoise belt from behind her store’s counter, Ann said, excited: “This is (from) a collection from the (19)40s.”
It was a gift, she explained, from her mother-in-law for her 40th birthday.
“And I wore it and wore it and wore it,” she laughed. “These are not fashion objects. It’s for generations to come,” she added, before spotting something else in the store she had to show me.
“It doesn’t get old, you know?”
Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at ErinUdell@coloradoan.com. The only way she can keep doing what she does is with your support. If you subscribe, thank you. If not, sign up for a subscription to the Coloradoan today.
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