Tom Pierson says he honestly doesn’t know where the name for his eccentric store — Kaleidoscope — came from, but it’s proved to be appropriate for a half-century.
“What you see in a kaleidoscope is constantly changing,” he notes, referring to the colorful optical toy. “And that’s certainly been the case with our business.”
The look of the store, and the merchandise and services offered therein, have evolved dramatically over the past 50 years. And there is some unexpected inventory kept out of sight in a back room, given away for free to those in need — more about that later.
When Tom and his wife Pam originally envisioned setting up a small independent store to sell rock ‘n’ roll recordings and stereo hi-fi gear, they planned to call it The Rock Shop.
“But we were standing in line at Empire Bank to set up a business account when we noticed someone two people ahead of us wearing a shirt with that name on it,” Tom recalls of spotting John Gott. “We realized there already was a Rock Shop in Springfield. So we stepped out of the line and went home to rethink it — and somehow we came up with Kaleidoscope.”
The Piersons were 20-somethings, newly wed and new to Springfield at the time — 1972 — and almost on a whim, they’d rented an old converted house on the south side of Sunshine Street one door east of Fremont Avenue.
They had been living in Little Rock, Ark., and were thinking of parlaying Tom’s prior experience as a manager with national book and record retailers into setting up their own business, possibly in Tulsa, Okla. However, while visiting Pam’s relatives in Branson, they took a day trip to Springfield, saw the “For Rent” sign as they drove along Sunshine and, that very afternoon, signed a lease with landlord C. Arch Bay.
‘This may not work…’
They opened Kaleidoscope’s door for the first time on the morning of October 9, which Tom notes is John Lennon’s birthday. (He puts stock in dates — he also mentions that he and Pam got married the previous year on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’ birthday, December 18.)
“The first customer didn’t show up until about 2 in the afternoon,’” Tom recalls. “I said to myself, ‘This may not work…’”
Kaleidoscope sold stereo equipment “for about a week.” Single 45-rpm records and eight-track tapes didn’t remain part of the inventory for long, either. The store’s initial successful niche was imported albums and lesser-known domestic albums not carried by existing dealers here. The Piersons liked to promote albums created by popular local bands of the day such as Fools Face, the Undergrass Boys and Entropy.
And, especially, the then-newly-formed Ozark Mountain Daredevils, also celebrating a 50th anniversary this year.
“We bought 50 cases of the Daredevils’ album when it came out. I had to track down my banker, Curtis Graff, in Florida to borrow the money. We had the album displayed all over the store, and sold it for cost plus freight so their fans in the area could get it. It really put us on the map. And they say it helped them, too.”
At first, the Piersons lived in an apartment above the store. But after a few years they saw a need to diversify and expand the business. Pam stepped out of her job as a dental assistant and took over converting the second floor of the building into a sales area featuring trendy fashion items, jewelry and leather goods.
Embracing the edge
As the 1970s turned into the ’80s, Kaleidoscope faced new competition from other retailers, the emergence of MTV and other musical offerings on television, plus the rising costs of albums. The couple decided to back away from the record business. They also abandoned an effort to open a northside branch on Kearney Street.
With the album bins cleared out, there was more room on the main floor for merchandise.
By then, the store was selling racy and zany greeting cards, posters, anatomically accurate candies and gag gifts (e.g.: edible underpants, male and female) popular on Valentine’s Day and bachelorette parties.
Today, sexually-oriented products are sequestered in a separate section dubbed Eros.
There, you can find vibrating adult toys and aids for private intimate interactions (Joy Jelly, Motion Lotion, flavored massage oils, etc.).
Kaleidoscope also became generally acknowledged as Springfield’s premiere “head shop,” with smoking accessories lining the walls.
In Tom’s estimation, “We brought a little bit of the West Coast and a little bit of the East Coast to relatively conservative Springfield.”
The store’s stock raised a few eyebrows at first. “A couple of guys — plain-clothes policemen — came in one day and looked around,” Tom says. “But we’ve never had a legal problem.”
A problem did seem to arise in the early 2000s when it was learned the lease wouldn’t be renewed because the landlords wanted to tear down the old house to enlarge the corner lot for redevelopment. (The land on which the house once stood is now the parking lot for a Culver’s restaurant.)
However, it spurred the Piersons into buying a strip center just to the east of the house that had been the site of a liquor store, a video rental shop and a tattoo studio. The acquisition increased the available square footage and expanded business possibilities for Kaleidoscope.
“I did an ad on the radio that said, ‘After 32 years, we’re moving 32 feet,’” Tom recounts, although he admits: “It was really 60 feet — but the 32-32 sounded good.”
Piercing fills the coffers
At the suggestion of the Piersons’ daughter, Whitney Pierson Creehan, Kaleidoscope had begun offering body piercings in the mid-1990s while still located in the original house. The move afforded the opportunity to create two state-of-the-art, super-sanitary piercing suites as part of remodeling the strip center. And the existing tattoo parlor inspired entry into that realm – although with extensively upgraded tattooing facilities and the hiring of four tattoo artists.
The piercing and tattoo operations are regulated by the Missouri Division of Professional Registration, specifically the Office of Tattooing, Body Piercing and Branding. (“We don’t do branding,” says Tom with an alarmed look, “but apparently somebody must.”) The piercers and tattoo artists are licensed by the state, and inspectors look in at the Kaleidoscope setup once or twice a year.
Today, piercing amounts to more than 60 percent of Kaleidoscope’s business, says Whitney, who oversees much of the business as her parents edge toward retirement. Whitney’s husband, Ben Creehan, is one of four piercers on the staff and has a hand in overall management. They are the parents of 18-year-old twin sons.
Tom credits his daughter and son-in-law with modernizing the business operations and coming up with marketing innovations.
For instance, until about 10 years ago, “Employees made out their own paychecks because I didn’t want to do payroll, figure out the deductions and taxes and that stuff,” Tom says. “Now, thanks to Whitney, our payroll system is computerized. Before, it was totally on the honor system — and, I must say, we didn’t have any problems over it.” But as the staff grew to about 30 employees nowadays, “It got to be impractical.”
Whitney says Ben talked her into upping the caliber of jewelry for piercings. “He convinced me to get higher-end gold pieces. At first I thought, ‘No, nobody will buy that stuff.’ But he was right — they do. And then he said, ‘People will buy diamonds for their ears — why wouldn’t they want diamonds for their piercings?’ Again, he was correct.”
Tom chimes in: “I was surprised when I started hearing ‘Oh, that’s $400’ or ‘That’s $500’ in talk at the piercings case. I wouldn’t have predicted that. But I’m 78 years old and maybe not in the best position to keep up with changes.”
Whitney says piercing customers — about 75 percent female — come in all ages.
“We have a lot of younger ones, sure, but we have pierced noses on 90-year-old women. We do a lot of women in their 70s who got their ears pierced when they were young but now their skin has stretched to the point that they can’t wear regular earrings anymore, and so we do repiercings for them. Nose piercing and cartilage piercing today is like earlobes used to be. We have older women who do dermal piercing (in which the ornament lies flat on the skin surface, such as on a cheek).
“And then we have some who already have been pierced but want something new for it. Or they suddenly get an idea for a new piercing when they look in the display case and see something they like, and they think, ‘Hmmmmm, where can I put that?’”
Kaleidoscope’s policy regarding tattoos, according to Whitney, is: “Just because we can do it, we’re not going to do it if it’s something that isn’t going to have longevity and be something you’ll be happy with for years. Our artists will talk people out of stuff once in a while. We sometimes get not-nice reviews that say ‘They wouldn’t do what I wanted!’ But skin ages and changes over time, and our artists take that into consideration.
“For instance,” she says, pointing to a script tattoo on her own arm, “this blobby line is supposed to read ‘For you, a thousand times over.’ I wanted them to do it smaller than they wanted to do it. They went ahead and did it my way because, well, I’m me. But now I can see that they were right – I should’ve gotten it bigger, like they recommended. Because if I didn’t tell you that’s what it says, you’d never know it.”
Customers sometimes want a new tattoo inked atop an existing one that is no longer relevant — the name of a former girlfriend or boyfriend, for instance. “We do a lot of coverups and reworks,” Whitney says. “It has to be bigger and darker than what already is there — a big flower or something like that. Sometimes, if it’s just an outline or cursive letters for a name, our artists can modify it and turn it into something else.”
The most unusual tattoo request she’s heard? “We do get some strange ones occasionally. One I remember is a guy who either lost a bet to his wife, or she said the only thing she wanted as a gift for their anniversary was for him to tattoo her name on the top of his head. He’d shaved the top of his head, and he had ‘Edna,’ or whatever her name was, tattooed right up there on top — which hurts like the dickens. He was in his 60s. It was cool.”
Some of the store’s merchandise is a throwback to 50 years ago. A half-dozen vinyl 33-rpm albums are displayed in one corner. And a large selection of greeting cards, some risque, are featured, along with three-dozen varieties of incense, tie-dye and hippie-chic clothing, and stylish sunglasses.
In the safe-for-all-ages part of the store is a display of traditional toys for children, because kids frequently accompany their parents to the store. “We have tons of women who bring their little girls to get their first ear piercing,” says Tom. “Yes,” adds Whitney, “we have women who got a navel piercing from us when they were 15 or 16, and now are coming in with their young daughters to get their ears pierced.”
It all adds up to multi-millions of dollars annually. “When we first started out, we’d do maybe $12,000 a month,” Tom recalls. “Now that’s a Saturday.”
“The store does make a lot of money,” Whitney agrees, “but we put a lot of money back into it to make it look sparkly and bright.”
“And to keep it clean,” says Tom.
The Piersons say they’re mulling possible new goods and services for the store’s future. One that they’ll mention is tarot card readings in an attractive finished space on the west end of the building that has been converted into a gallery to display colorful paintings created by Pam.
An unexpected public service for the shelterless in Springfield
An unmarked personnel door at the rear of the gallery leads to an unfinished area that serves as a storeroom. Much of the content reflects Whitney’s compassion for Springfield’s unhoused and down-on-their-luck residents — and her passion to help them.
It began nine years ago when she and Ben and their sons, Jack and Brooklyn, went to The Kitchen shelter to help neighbors who were putting on a cookout there. While serving meals, Whitney heard some participants say they wished they had hoodies to wear.
“I’ll ask on Facebook — how hard could that be?” thought Whitney. “So I did. And I got three SUV-loads of hoodies in response, so many that I couldn’t believe it.”
That led to her joining other women providing snacks at a local drop-in shelter on Saturdays. “After three months, we switched from snacks to whole meals. Again, I used Facebook. I’d go, ‘Who could make me four pies?’ They’d drop them off at my house, and I’d drive them to the shelter to distribute. Then it grew into making meals three times a week, and one breakfast per week…”
In more recent times, Whitney and her friend Jennifer Cannon, working with Gathering Friends, have focused on raising funds that can be applied to specific needs as they arise. “We funnel it to case workers who can’t find another route to get something. There are a lot of charitable organizations in town, but there are a lot of gaps.”
That hidden storeroom at Kaleidoscope holds clothing, footwear, backpacks and other useful necessities that are given away when someone in need appears at the store.
Tom recalls a recent episode: “A guy showed up here at the store the other day wearing paper pants like you get in the hospital — Mercy is only a block away — and one of those backless hospital gowns. When he came in, all he asked for was a match to light the cigarette — it actually was just part of a cigarette — that he had in his hand.
“I was busy with the day’s deposit, and I wasn’t thinking. I gave him a lighter to take. He said ‘Thanks’ and walked back out the door. Then it dawned on me that I’d been stupid.
“So I told Whitney, and she went out and chased him down. She brought him back and took him over to her storeroom and got him pants, a shirt, shoes and socks.”
The Piersons have been quietly celebrating their 50th anniversary year in business by pledging to donate $50,000 to local charities. They’ve been writing a $3,500 check each month, most recently to Play It Forward SWMO, an organization that collects, rehabs and distributes musical instruments to students who otherwise couldn’t obtain them.
“I was thrilled when Tom told me that Play It Forward SWMO would be the beneficiary of one of their donations,” says Ruell Chappell, director of the organization. “In addition to putting instruments into the hands of children who need them, we will use Kaleidoscope’s kind donation to help provide music lessons to students who can’t afford them.”
Other charities receiving checks have included “Wish I May,” which provides birthday baskets for underserved kids; and Dynamic Strides, which introduces youngsters to horseback riding as therapy.
For the store’s official anniversary month — October — the Piersons will give four weekly donations to bring the total for the year up to $50,000.
“October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” notes Whitney, “so we’re picking four places that assist with that, places that maybe many people don’t know about. It’s a big problem here.”
Tom credits Whitney for the focus on helping those in need in the community and for inspiring him and Pam to give back to the community that has supported Kaleidoscope for five decades.
“If by some chance I get to heaven, and St. Peter meets me at the gate and asks my name, if I say ‘Tom Pierson’ he’ll say ‘I’m sorry, you’re not on the list.’
“But my hope is that there will be a booming voice that then says, ‘That’s Whitney’s dad — let him in.’
“That’s my vision. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll know anybody if I do get in there…”