In 1976, Celeste Hardnock made an overnight decision to buy a shop at the east end of Broadway and open a women’s fashion boutique.
“This space became available on Broadway, and a friend called me and said: ‘You need to do this. You need to try,’” Hardnock says, “and I went for it. I kind of knew, or at least I thought I knew, that I could do it.”
That quick decision led to one of downtown Columbia’s longest lasting shops, My Sister’s Circus. Still owned and operated by Hardnock today, the shop specializes in helping women 35 years old and older look their best in the latest fashions.
“Everybody wants to wake up in the morning and put something on that they feel good in, and that’s what we gear toward,” Hardnock says. “Instead of just putting on some sweats and a sweatshirt, we help women put on something that makes them feel good about themselves.”
The store has a flirtatious, sophisticated vibe — which comes straight from its owner, says Brooke Asmussen, an employee who has worked at My Sister’s Circus for nine years.
“Celeste does all of the displays, so she is the one who puts the personality in this store,” Asmussen says. “It’s all her. She’s fun, and she’s got good style, so that’s what you can take from the store — some spunk and creativity.”
Going For It
When she opened My Sister’s Circus, Hardnock was a recent Stephens College grad with a degree in business. Her dad, she says, helped her find the spunk she needed to follow her dream.
“He said, ‘You’ll never know until you try,’” she says. “I can’t say I really knew what I was doing. I just knew that I could learn as I went.”
There was no particular reason forcing Hardnock to make such a quick decision. That, she says, is how she always likes to do things.
“I think when you really have to think hard on something, it’s not meant to be,” she says. “If it’s right, you know it, and you just do it.”
From the beginning, Hardnock’s favorite part of the business has been creating the displays. Also known as merchandising, this task is all about helping customers see the possibilities in the goods around them.
“It’s almost like interior design, but it’s not with furniture; it’s with clothing,” Hardnock says.
When choosing which items to bring into the store, Hardnock says she has always had a target audience in mind. In the beginning, it was women in their 20s.
“I totally catered to the kids because I was that age,” she says, “and as I have grown older, the merchandising has been catered to an older customer.”
Growing older has in no way meant lowering the fun. Asked to come up with a word that describes the look inside My Sister’s Circus, Hardnock says sassy.
“We try to make it sassy, and we have a little bit of an edge in here,” she says. “If you’re looking for a suit look, we’re not your store. But if you’re looking for some fun tops and bottoms and want us to put an outfit together for you, then we’re the place to go.”
Customer service is a defining trait of My Sister’s Circus. Staff members are not only there to help women find what they want but will also make sure women look their best in their chosen pieces.
“Honesty is big here,” Asmussen says. “That’s one of the first things Celeste told me about her store: ‘Don’t lie to anybody and tell them they look great in something just to sell it.’” Asmussen admits she cringed a little the first few times she heard Hardnock telling women an outfit wasn’t working for them, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that Hardnock could pull it off.
“Because she has such poise and style naturally, she’s believable,” Asmussen says. “And it’s not like, ‘You look terrible’; it’s: ‘You could fix this. This could look great.’ She encourages; she doesn’t break anybody down.”
A Faithful Friend
Lisa Stevens is one of Hardnock’s best friends, and she says that sensitivity to others’ feelings goes much deeper than being able to offer constructive criticism on fashion.
“She has a very caring nature,” Stevens says, adding that Hardnock serves on the Salvation Army board. She thinks of a story illustrating her friend’s compassion. “I volunteer at St. Francis House, and there was a time within the last year when Celeste went out to eat with her daughter, and she called me, in tears, and said: ‘There’s a man and a woman out here, and they have nothing, and you can tell this woman needs help. What do I do?’ So I took somebody from the St. Francis House with me, and the woman actually needed help to go to the hospital. And Celeste was the one who got them help because — it was kind of like the story of the Good Samaritan — because she saw them lying on the ground, and she felt sorry for them.”
Stevens also talks about Hardnock’s loyalty to family and friends. She shares how Hardnock made weekly trips to Illinois to visit her mother, who passed away from Alzheimer’s this spring, and she also shares how Hardnock helped her, Stevens, when she lost her mother three years ago.
“There was never an evening when I didn’t get a phone call or a text message,” Stevens says. “She was there for me, and it’s something I won’t forget.”
That loyalty has impressed Asmussen, as well.
“She’s a friend to the end,” Asmussen says. “She will do anything for her friends and her family. It’s not a question you have to worry about. If you are in her circle, then you have a loyal, genuine friend.”
Pride And Joy
Now almost 40 years into My Sister’s Circus, Hardnock says she has no plans to retire — and her relationships are a big reason why.
“We have customers who have been coming here since the very beginning,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun. The shop is where I do my socializing. I just love it.”
She also has the joy of working with her daughter, Stella Grove, who joined My Sister’s Circus nine years ago. Hardnock says their different strengths make them a good pair. “Stella sees the whole picture, and I seem to lock in on the details. … Stella has strong customer service skills, and I enjoy merchandising and the books. As a team, we work well together. There is always a random day of bickering and arguments, as one can expect from a mother and daughter pair. I may fire her one day, she may quit the next, but we always come together at the end of the day and laugh.”
Hardnock also has a son, CJ, who lives in Illinois. Last winter, he and his wife welcomed a baby boy — Hardnock’s first grandchild.
“I’m GlamMa, not Grandma,” she says. “That’s the big joke around here. I try to get there to see him as often as I can. I try to go weekly, or if not weekly, every other week for sure I have to get there.”
And, befitting her new role, Hardnock has picked up a new hobby.
“I’ve started baking,” she says — a new interest that amuses Stevens.
“This is a person who never cooked before, and now she loves making cupcakes in different flavors and decorating them,” Stevens says, “and she’s great at it.”
“I keep joking that I’m going to open up a coffee shop and bakery somewhere,” Hardnock says, “and that’s what everybody says I need to do when I’m done here. … But really for me to sit back and say: ‘I don’t want to do this. I’m going to retire,’ I can’t even fathom that yet.
“I’m proud of being able to say that I own My Sister’s Circus because I worked really, really hard for it,” she adds. “And even after all these years, I still really enjoy what I do.”
7 Style Tips From Celeste
- Dress monochromatic.
- Just because an outfit is comfortable doesn’t mean it’s flattering.
- An outfit doesn’t have to be expensive to look good; it’s all in the fit and the quality of the fabric.
- When in doubt, wear a heel.
- A good fitted pair of jeans and a heel paired with a flattering dressy top can take you to many venues.
- Pick one item in your outfit to make your focal point. Keep everything else subtle.
- It’s always better to be overdressed than undressed.