Thirty years ago, my dad called me with a crazy proposition. Some folks in my hometown of Atchison, Kansas, thought there was a great need for a gourmet food store in town. Was I interested? I was young, had no money to invest in a start-up business and knew absolutely nothing about gourmet food, other than I liked to eat it. It was insane to even consider such a preposterous idea. But Dad was a hell of a salesman. And I knew in my gut this was the chance of a lifetime. So I resigned from my job, moved back to Atchison and opened the shop that would evolve into Nell Hill’s. (Click here to view the fun video we made about how this crazy adventure started!)

Growing and operating Nell Hill’s for the past 30 years has taught me a lot about decorating … and about life. Here are seven gems I’ve discovered that have enriched me as a person, as a store owner and as someone who can’t get enough of decorating.

1. It’s Important to Rethink Things

One of the things I love most about working at Nell Hill’s is the chance to meet all kinds of fabulous people. In fact, I’ve made my dearest friends through the store. But every once in a while, you meet someone who is a challenge to work with because they act so unpleasantly.  Through the years, I’ve learned that before you judge someone because of their behavior, it’s important to understand what they are going through. They may be facing a difficult challenge that is stealing their joy. So when you can, rethink people, considering them from a different perspective, and give them another chance.

The same principle can be applied to decorating. Sometimes you need to rethink your approach, whether it’s how you have decorated a space or how you’ve used an accent in the past. Be willing to try something new and come at things from a different perspective. For example, open up your cabinets, find pieces you have tucked away and consider how to use them in a new way. It could start as simply as pulling out that wonderful ironstone pitcher you never use, filling it with flowers and letting it add cheer to your bedroom dresser.

2. Take Everything in Balance

Each one of us is a wonderful mix of strengths and weaknesses, aren’t we? We may be dynamite at some things, but a work in progress in others. Managing lots of different types of people through the years has taught me that you need to take everyone on balance because usually their strengths far outweigh their weaknesses. For example, the employee who is chronically 15 minutes late for work may also be the one who skips lunch or stays late because she is working so hard.

Similarly, I would encourage you to take your home on balance. None of our homes are perfect, and if you’re like most of us, you have a list of things you’d like to change. But when you maximize the strengths of your home and minimize its weaknesses, it will be singularly beautiful. For instance, if your home lacks interesting architectural details, you can give it loads of character through your choice of wall color, artwork and furnishings.

3. Listen to People

Have you ever caught yourself doing this with a friend: Before she even finishes telling you about a problem she’s facing, you’ve already given her your solution?  Sometimes, it’s hard to listen and not interrupt or interject an opinion. But I’ve found that when you give someone your undivided attention, chances are that as they talk, they usually arrive at the right solution themselves. And, as you listen fully, you get a better understanding of the situation and can give her sound, helpful advice.

Time and again, I see this principle played out in the world of decorating. Far too often, well-intending designers or friends who love to decorate try to tell a homeowner what she wants, overruling her objections or waving off her concerns, instead of really listening to her. No doubt, these folks have a fabulous vision for the space. But if it’s not shared by the homeowner herself, she won’t be happy when the project is complete. I believe that when someone asks you for your opinion about decorating their home, you need to listen to them first, before you give any suggestions. If you disagree, gently offer your thoughts. But remember that in the end, it’s all about what they want because it’s their home.

4. Everyone Needs a Cheerleader

We all need people to come alongside us and cheer us on in life. It may be helping a friend gain the confidence she needs to go for that great new job. Or it may be offering a shoulder to cry on to a friend who is going through a tough time. They already know what to do; they just need someone in their corner, offering encouragement.

The same thing often happens when it comes to decorating. I love it when customers come to Nell Hill’s seeking solutions to their decorating challenges. While we are all about giving advice and coming up with great solutions, I’m always amazed by how often our customers already have the problem figured out. All they lack is the confidence to act on their plan. They just need a cheerleader.

5. Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

OK, I know this sounds like something you’d see written on a cheesy motivational poster. But it’s true! Sometimes we become so consumed with getting to our destination that we don’t enjoy where we are right now. This is especially true when it comes to decorating our homes, isn’t it? When we decide it’s time to redo a room, we want it all done yesterday, if not sooner.

I vividly remember this feeling when Dan and I moved into our historic fixer-upper. The house needed so much work that for years we spent nearly all our budget on structural improvements. Necessary, but not much fun. I would sit on a sawhorse in the construction zone that was my living room, drink my morning coffee and dream about how I wanted to decorate this space. Every day I came up with a different plan. At the time, I was impatient to be done. But now, looking back, I think I had more fun dreaming of what the room could be than I did actually finishing it.

Like most of us, you are probably decorating your home in increments, taking one step after another, as budget and time allow. Your destination is the beautiful finished product you see so vividly in your mind. But my advice is, enjoy the journey.

6. Pursue Your Passions

Like me, you are probably passionate about making your home a lovely, livable space that reflects your personality and style. But are you as passionate about everything else in your life?

Thirty years ago, I decided to take a leap of faith and purse a career that has brought me immense joy. Don’t get me wrong – there have been a lot of ups and downs. It took me a while to figure out what Nell Hill’s should be, and in the early days, I barely brought home a paycheck. I’ve had to navigate through some tough economic conditions. And I’ve had to learn how to manage everything from inventory to employees to technology. But I have loved every minute of it.

What is your passion? Is it raising your kids? Building your own business? Helping people out of poverty and addiction? Promoting the arts? Advancing your education? Whatever it is, pursue it with your whole heart.

7. Put in the Work – It’s Worth it

This may sound old school, but I firmly believe in hard work. I have found that when you put a lot of yourself into something, you usually reap the rewards. That’s true in your relationships, in your career, in your hobbies and even in your decorating.

A few weeks ago, I threw a 90th birthday party for my mom. I was swamped at work, but I knew that every minute I put into making this party special for Mom and her guests would be well spent. So I ran my rear off for several days, planning a sit-down dinner for 25. I shined the silver and arranged bouquets of fresh flowers, making sure the environment was as special as my Mom. Next time you have an event at your home, put in the time necessary to make it magical – it will be worth it!

Next Week … I’ll share some tips and photos for making your Thanksgiving table splendid.

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48 Responses to “What 30 Years with Nell Hill’s Has Taught Me About Decorating … and Life”

  1. patti g Says:

    Dear MCG,

    This just confirms every good impression I have had of you, as well
    as being over board crazy for each vignette you have inspired whether
    on your blog or in your stores.
    On so many levels, this is the stuff of life.

    From the moment I read your first book to the meeting you
    personally three years ago – till the last few moments of reading
    your mantra for living a balanced and full life – I am enthalled
    with everthing you represent..

    You are a kindred spirit in many ways – and I congratulate
    you and your staff on making this dream come true.

    Blessings on you and yours always,

  2. Lisa Fernandez Says:

    Hi Mary Carol and the Nell Hll Family,
    Congratulations on 30 years. And God Bless your daddy who inspired you and was able to see something you couldn’t at the time. That was definitely God working through him. I only learned about you two years ago and there has not been a day that has gone by that I honestly have not picked up one of your books (have all of them) checked your blog, gone on your website, re-designed something in my home thinking of something I say you had and have said “Dear God, thank you for Mary Carol. Sincerely, you have brought me so much joy and taught me so much. And being able to go to your home in September was truly the highlight of my creative, decorating, dreams. (Thanks to my dear husband Rob).
    So I pray that you celebrate, toast and enjoy your blessings on this 30th year and may you continue to grow and give back to so many the way you have in the past. Some on loves ya in Newtown PA Mary Carol! God bless you and thanks. (And lets thank Dan as well who has been there by your side all these years being a support I’m sure.)
    Lisa from PA

  3. Amy@Maison Decor Says:

    This was a great post full of sage advice~so much of what I agree with! Congrats on who you are and how wonderful you had a dad to push you at the start!

  4. Ann Pecard Says:

    Mary Carol, That was lovely. Thanks for such beautiful and inspiring thoughts to kick off not only our week, but the holiday season. Congratulations to you on 30 years! You’re an inspiration to Richard and me, and an outstanding example of what hard work and “pursuing your passions” can accomplish. Hope we get to see you again, soon.

  5. Bridget Says:

    Time flies! Thirty years? Really? I remember Gourmet Corner as a kiddo. My mom would take me and my sisters in there, and say, “don’t touch a thing!” Yeah right! All of the interesting items that I had never seen, wonderful smelling teas, and these little fancy lemon drop candies. You were always a beam of sunshine and wonderful to us when we would come in.
    You are truly one of the hardest working people I’ve ever encountered, and deserving of all the good things that have come your way! Cheers to you, and MANY more years of Nell Hill’s!

  6. Barbara Says:

    What a great post and so reflective of who you are. A person can either affirm or deny another. You are one who affirms others. God bless you.

  7. Maureen Says:

    Congratulations on your 30 years! Your advice was right on! Your books are reflective of your style and grace! Many more years of happy decorating (and good advice)!

  8. Mari Says:

    Lovely, thoughtful post.

    Congratulations on 30; here’s to 30 more.

  9. pat pennington Says:

    How wonderful to be in business for 30 years. Worked at a family owned furniture store for 17 years and on to selling women’s clothing for 16 years. People are just so interesting and you as a person grow from their challanges. My sister told me one day that most people had lost their ability to listen. You made me smile today as you echoed her words. Have 30 more years of success. I rember the first day I shopped at Nell Hills. I was just as excited as Lisa. Don’t forget to taste the coffee and smell the roses.
    Pat Pennington

  10. Vivian Foster Says:

    Beautifully written post … and applying life principles to making a home was really touching. Thanks and congratulations on 30 years!

  11. Susan Held Says:

    Hi Mary Carol! Congratulations to you, your husband and all your staff for 30 years of creativity, hard work and for always making your customers feel special and welcome in your stores.When my sister comes to visit from Conneticut, we always first plan our trip to Atchison and always have to stop at Briarcliff on the way home from the airport ! Many of our fun times together revolve around our Nell Hill’s experiences and inspirations. Thank you for all the warm smiles through the years. Many continued blessings to you and yours.

  12. Elizabeth B Says:

    Mary Carol, I also need to mention your (and Dan’s) and ALL of Nell Hills for the great, wonderful economic (and otherwise) impact you have had for 30 years and continue to have on the heartland community of Atchison, KS and now for several years in N Kansas City MO.
    What you’ve said in this weeks’ blog is so you (and many of ours) value system which we now pass on to the next generations.
    And Happy 90th Birthday to your dear Mother…she and your Father were and are dear, dear people.
    Continued Blessings from a proud fellow northeast Kansan.
    Take good care until we meet again.

  13. Hank & Norma Schlattmann Says:

    Hi Mary Carol, congratulations on 30 wonderful years there. I remember your Dad and his clothing store across the mall from your place. I also remember when you started the gourmet store but you also had some unique gift items. If we needed a gift for someone you were always so helpful. the other thing I remember is after you sold us a gift, you would offer to take it to the postoffice and mail it for us. No one else in town came close to tha kind of service. We still stop at your store every time we are back in town and love it. We will be in town Fri. the 7 th and may see you then. Thanks for being so special.

  14. Karen Pettit Says:

    I so appreciate the depth of you and how you expressed your thoughts so perfectly. Some day I am going to use your thoughts to share with others, for it was very inspiring to me. I live in Utah, my sister used to live about 45 minutes from your shop and one day when I was visiting her, we drove to your shop, I bought your book and had you sign it. My sister has since moved to TX, so I think my opportunities of returning may be slim, but I feel close through your weekly updates through email. Thank you for being a caring and inspiring person!

  15. Carmen Says:

    Hi Mary Carol,

    Very beautiful post. Being a true shopper, the pictures in Take Everything In Balance caught my eye. Are they still available for sale. If yes, which store should I go to purchase them.

  16. Katie Hoffman Says:

    I am a former military wife and discovered your gourmet shop in the mid-80′s when I was at Ft Leavenworth. With my mom from NM, we bought our first artifical Christmas trees at Nell Hill’s. When I moved to FL, I called you b/c I needed lace curtains and Battenburg table linens and you so kindly sent these wonderful items to me ~ nothing like your store in Tampa in early 90′s. I found your books over the years and often refresh my memory. When I retired a couple of years ago and moved to MT, I googled Nell Hill’s and discovered your blog. I haven’t missed it one week and have shared with friends and family. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I met a lady who discovered you through Charlene/market and we talked about you for an hour! I have always appreciated your talent. One day soon I want to return to Kansas City area and visit your shops. I know I will find lots to buy b/c your shops fit my style to a T. Thanks a bunch for 30 years!!

  17. Elaine Says:

    Mary Carol……a couple of weeks ago when my husband and I visited all three of your stores [we're from Manitoba, Canada], I bought Christmas decor items in each store. This week I started my home decorating and what fun trying to decide where best to put these wonderful items. I love, love, love the square greenery wreath! It seems I could use a few of them.

    Congratulations on 30 years of a job well done. I worked in retail many years and know about the hard work and perseverance involved when you own your own business. Thank you to you and your supportive family.

    Have a great Thanksgiving Season!

  18. Jean Bowers Says:

    Mary Carol, Congratulations on 30 successful years!! I am such a fan through your books and now your blog, as well. You are such an inspiration and thank you for the time and effort you put into all these endeavors. I so wish I could visit your stores! Perhaps one day I will be able to do so. Looking forward to the coming holiday season and more wonderful ideas and photos. Happy Holidays!

  19. Sherril Boyer Says:

    Mary Carol…You are a gem! I miss you and think of you and Nell Hill’s often! Thank you for sharing such great advice on life! It truly is a journey not a destination and the joy of the trip is the best part. You will always represent that joy for a lot of people! Congrats on 30 years (are you sure you are old enough for that?!) and I hope you have many years of happiness to come. You have earned it all and more! Success always.

  20. Betsy Woods Says:

    Oh my what wonderful memories… I visited Nell Hill’s in 1992 while living in Leavenworth, KS, met you, Mary Carol, and have loved you ever since. Brava for 30 years of success. We all reap the benefits of your amazing talent and dedication. You are unique and I was blessed to find your “Shop on the Corner” in Atchison. I loved it so that I returned from Colorado Springs with 2 friends in tow and they will be forever grateful. I do wish I could pop in often like I did back then but Utah is a bit too far. However; when driving cross country, we detour into Atchison for my Nell Hill’s fix….
    Congratulations, Mary Carol.

  21. NovemberBride Says:

    Excellent and timely post, Mary Carol! Much food for thought and digestion. I hope you have many many more years to celebrate. Give your Mom a big hug from a displaced Texas who is now a Kansan. Warmest regards and thanks for all of the inspiration!

  22. Liz@infusewithliz Says:

    What a beautiful posting! I agree with everything you have spoken about!
    I’m new to you and your Nell Hills’s business, but I am excited to have found you both! I’m traditional at heart and your style and purpose speak to me!
    I didn’t pursue a particular special goal for myself (other than raising two great kids!) but I did help my spouse start up a business and have been there through the many ups and downs. Now with the kids grown I have the time to pursue more of my passion for decorating!
    My mother just turned 89 so I know where you are at! I made sure she had a special birthday party this year just in case!
    Looking forward to your Thanksgiving post!

  23. Susan Says:

    Still remember the first time I went to Nell Hill’s in Atchinson. I didn’t buy a thing but I left with a renewed spirit for the joy of decorating and celebrating Life’s special moments. Fortunately I have shaken off some of the bedazzling bewilderment of my first visit through Nell Hill’s – at Christmas – and I now enjoy many things that bring a warm cozy atmosphere to my home. When fall arrives my thoughts to Atchinson go! Have a wonderful holiday!

  24. kellee Says:

    Mary Carol,
    Thank you for this blog post. Im having a tough time relating to my grandmother and I will use your quote “we are all a mix of strengths and weaknesses” to explain my feelings to her soon. Congrats on 30 years. You have inspired hundreds if not thousands of people to decorate and live beautiful lives with treasured possessions.

  25. sharon Says:

    Wonderful, wise , inspirational words! You also never know when someone needs to hear all of this. Life takes you by surprise and hearing words of wisdom and understanding helps us get through it. Thank you

  26. Elizabeth Post Says:

    Mary just today I was with a friend sharing some of the same things you spoke about in your 30 year celebration email.I was so blessed the Lord will use even home decorating teach us how to enjoy this life He has given us.May you continue to unwrap the blessings and share your giftings to so many people on your next 30 years.You not only taught on decorating also living life as well to the fullest.

    Thank you,

  27. JKH Says:

    Here’s to George, a wonderful man of great wisdom and foresight. To Mary Lou, a divine mother and trusted friend. And to you Mary Carol, the Gourmet Corner was a great stress reliever for a few us Benedictine students. We may not have had any money to spend but we spent plenty of time reading the fabulously funny cards, checking out all things we wish could buy and building a friendship with you. What a gift you have been for 30 years! You are a treasure, near and dear to our hearts.

  28. Joanna Glaze Says:

    Thirty years–it just doesn’t seem possible! Congrats to you and your team MC, it has been fun to watch!

  29. Maggie Says:

    Mary Carol you are just a beautiful person and clearly it comes through in your inspiration for decorating. Nell Hill’s has always been a “happy” place for me and a haven for escape from my somewhat hectic life. My grandmother and I used to journey to Atchison to be inspired and even though she is no longer here, I always feel that she is with me when I am in your stores and that is a wonderful feeling. Many hearfelt congrats on your 30th year anniversary! My very best to you and your wonderful team on the next 30 years:)

  30. Shelly Vaughn Says:

    Dear Mary Carol, I, too, am so thankful that your father had the foresight of a fantastic future for you. Few people probably even know that he would come down and sit at the storefront just to tell people to “come on in!” with a huge smile on his face! He was so proud of you! We met him out in front of the old bank that became your new shop,sitting in a chair outside. He was dressed to the nines,and was even holding some random lady’s baby who had taken up to him while she shopped! And your personality and being at the store everyday is exactly what keeps your customers coming back year after year! We have been coming to Atchinson for many years and I even take my husband who was reluctant at first,but he is the one who picked out all of our custom bedding, and sat to have “guy” conversations with your dad. (That way I could sneak more things to the counter to buy) ha! ha! But seriously! Congratualtions on 30 years! And we Hope to have many many more!

  31. Kathryne Ford Says:

    Congrats on this anniversary year for You, Dan, and Nell Hills! It seems just a blink in time since I bought my first Christmas decor in October. I always came over several times a year and marveled at how you always remembered and spoke with us. I also was a high school student in need of clothes and had many good times shopping whith my mother for the lovely clothes at your parents store in Atchison in the 60′s. I am thrilled for your success and marvel at your hard work and perseverence, all with a twinkle in your eyes.

  32. Pat sSnowden Says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t mention the short lived little eating establishment you had downstairs. Our bridge club enjoyed several meals there. We also were young enough to manage to stairs! Congrats on a job well done for all those 30 years.

  33. Mary Syron Says:

    What an accomplishment, Mary Carol! I was in Nell Hills when you were a tiny little place so it’s been a while. I have hardwood floors, solid drapes – kind of green/gray, and a green sofa, red chair, and a leather chair. So.. how do I transfer to a lighter pallet like the white furniture you have in your blog?? I’m just stuck and don’t know how to start. I don’t think I want white, so what color should I start with?? Thanks! Congratulations and wishing you many, many more years of success!

  34. sandy mc Says:

    Congratulations on your 30th Anniversary. It doesn’t seem that long.Your stores are wonderful. I am always talking about the great things you have.This latest blog was especially good. I am glad I went to Facebook to see all the photos.Am looking forward to visiting soon.

  35. barbara rentschler Says:

    Mary Carol, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Nell Hill’s store in KC last weekend for the first time. I have heard about you for years, own one of your books, have read about you in different magazines, and aspire to have my own decorating business, tea room, and more. I will soon be 55 yrs young and I feel like this is a new beginning for me. I redesign vintage furniture, through upholstery and painted furniture. I LOVE what I get to do, and your latest blog was inspiriational to me and convinces me to keep forging ahead. I stayed home to raise my children and am now pursuing all my interests with the gifts and talents God has blessed me with. Thank you for sharing your talents and inspiring us all to go for it. Thank you, Barb Rentschler

  36. Marilyn Domann Buehler Says:

    MC,I think we all grew with you during your 30 years. I remember the Gourmet Corner vividly. I thank you for inspiring my children with a creative work ethic, they were fortunate to be able to work for you.
    Sincerely and congratulations,

  37. AM Says:

    HI Mary Carol,

    Thanks for such a meaningful post…and CONGRATULATIONS on a great 30 years. I was able to visit your store a week after your open house (missed year hope to see it:)) Your staff made my hubby and I feel so welcome and of course, everything was so beautiful! Thanks for such a wonderful experience at your stores and continued success in the future!

  38. Marilyn B Says:

    Thank you, Mary Carol for the wonderful words of wisdom. You are an inspiration to all who have the privilage to shop your stores and meet you personally. Your open house was devine. So happy friend Sandy Mc had me come up to KC for the event. I purchased two of the black mirrored lanters and have had fun decorating for Fall and am looking forward to doing something different for Christmas.

  39. Victoria Says:

    I remember the first time I experienced Nell Hill’s it was a magazine
    article in 1995 when I lived in Montana. Bought every magazine you were featured in and then over the years all your books. Love the blog and the website.Wonderful and touching words of wisdom
    Mary Carol it is no surprise you have thrived. Thanks to all the joy
    you bring into homes everywhere.

  40. Jenny Lupine Says:

    You mention bad customers. You might mention the times the shop has failed it’s customers and the customers have given you a second chance.

  41. Angela Says:

    Great post Mary Carol! My aunt read it before me and asked me to read this entry soon after our convo about my reservations or fears about pursuing a passion (or two) of mine that has been just a hobby. She is a big cheerleader and it does help to know that someone believes in you and helps prod you a little to take some risks and enjoy the process. I just love your attitude about it all and that you are so gracious with others. Wisdom, grace, patience and talent all packed into a very stylish woman! What a dream it would be to work for you!

  42. Dee Rucker Says:

    Mary Carol, Congrats and may you be blessed with continued success. I have enjoyed collecting your books, visiting your stores, and now working to turn my empty nest into someting that feels like home ( a haven) again. I am making progress and enjoying every minute of the process. It’s going to take some time for me to complete the process. I am not able to do everthing I’d like all at once. It felt good to see your article mention to have patience, and dream.. I’ve made some purchases I feel are good building blocks. Thank you and your staff for such a wonderful spot to visit. You modivate and inspire. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt story.

  43. Mary Carol Says:

    How wonderful it was for me to hear all these wonderful comments this week—thank-you, thank-you —I am truly blessed, and point well taken Jenny—we so appreciate the second chance. We are always striving to be better.

  44. Paula Says:

    Hi Mary Carol – I think #5 is one of the hardest lessons to learn, and I love that you’ve put it here :) From watching my fair share of HGTV, I realize that Americans often want the “Fast Food” version of their decorating, their relationships, their life. Meaning, we want it now, we want it completely done for them, and there’s no willingness to wait or work hard for things. As a nation, we’re obsessed with a good “before” and “after” but we don’t often see the work that goes on in between those pictures. I love that you’re focusing on the journey :) because that’s where the magic and the learning and the special moments happen.

    Congratulations on 30 years!

  45. Amy Says:

    Congratulations! I don’t know where I’ve been, but I was just introduced to you through the November Romantic Homes Magazine. What an inspiration you are to the rest of us! Thank you for sharing your advice with us!

  46. Patricia Given-Nicotra Says:

    Dear Mary Carol,
    Just like traveling to Ireland was on my “Bucket list” so is coming to your store!
    I made it to Ireland and I hope someday to be shopping at your store!!! Congratulations on 30 years!!!!!! Best Wishes to you and your staff!

  47. mimi tafour Says:

    Hello dear friend. I somehow missed this until tonight. As I read all that you had to say, I felt I had an open window to your heart. Smiled the entire time and kept having the idea that here is your next book! Maybe your best book yet. Have you had the same idea? Just think about it. We all love and appreciate all that you are with respect to Nell Hills and decorating. But you are so much more…. life coach, cheerleader, philosopher, confidant, friend. You inspire and encourage, and you have much wisdom to offer with sincerity. Put it all in a new book. It will be another blessing to so many…. same wonderful you, but in an added light. God has certainly blessed you, Mary Carol , with many gifts. Just so thankful you have chosen to share them with us. (Gen. 12:2b) :)

  48. Cheryl Says:

    I was going to delete this email as this is such a crazy time of year and I didn’t think I had time to read it. Wow, i sure am glad I took the time. I want to print this and hang it up so that I can read it occasionally for inspiration and for when I am feeling overwhelmed. What a great view of decorating and some great things to remember about living a happy life. I’ve not met you but your friends are very lucky to have you. Thanks, I really needed to read this!

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