Kelley Heuisler, the owner of retail chain Poppy and Stella, didn’t make the decision overnight. The pandemic and a friend’s funeral she attended with her 12-year-old daughter in Ocean City gave her some perspective.

The pandemic was the first time she thought her business wouldn’t make it. Attending the funeral made her realize that life is precious. And the business consistently consumed much of her time.

Even during the repast after the funeral, she found herself working, posting pictures to social media of the latest fashions sold at her stores. There was always the the pressures of making sales, rent and paying her employees.

The small-business owner hustle also didn’t go unnoticed by Heuisler’s daughter, Addie, who told her mother on the drive home that she could close the business and not stress so much. Running a business and working for herself provided flexibility, but more often than not, the work hours exceeded a 9-to-5 schedule, and it was difficult for her to be present when she was home.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“To hear that from her, it gave me permission to start thinking through the possibilities of closing. I’ve never been able to take a break from social media,” Heuisler said.

And that led her to the decision that after 15 years in business, she would close the Poppy and Stella stores she opened when she was single and before she had children. The original Poppy and Stella location in Fells Point will close at the end of December, as will The Shops at Kenilworth location. The Ellicott City location closed Nov. 19.

She’s looking forward to spending more time with her family and truly taking a break. As far as what’s next, that’ll take some time, since Poppy and Stella has been a large part of her identity. Together, she and the brand have grown in many ways.

“It’s really been a part of my life since the beginning, you know, the beginning of this kind of adult journey,” Heuisler said.

Kelley Heuisler, owner of Poppy and Stella, in her Broadway Street store on Dec. 7, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Heuisler was 26 years old and working for a wholesale mortgage lender when she knew she wanted a change. Her half sister owns a store in Burlington, Vermont, which she always adored and often visited with an empty suitcase to fill before she returned to Maryland. Her experiences at the store inspired her to bring a fun, boutique-shopping experience to Baltimore with “something for everyone.” The first name of her sister’s store, Stella, and the California poppy, a flower from where Heuisler’s native state, inspired the name.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

She and her then-boyfriend (now husband) moved to Canton, and Heuisler, with little retail experience, settled on a space in Fells Point in the 700 block of South Broadway, which gets local and tourist traffic. She started selling accessories and shoes because, she said, “having an amazing pair of shoes can instantly elevate your mood and confidence.” She eventually expanded to selling clothing.

Heuisler said she was lucky to open in 2008, because it felt like a time when independent small businesses were really thriving in Baltimore.

With every opening, closure and expansion of the store, Heuisler’s personal life evolved. A month after opening the Fells Point location, she got engaged and then married. She opened another location in Annapolis, which she eventually closed, and had her first child. Two years later, her second daughter, Eloise, was born, and five years later , her third, Jolene. Heuisler took little maternity leave because of demanding weekly responsibilities like payroll, scheduling and buying merchandise. She always had to monitor trends and make sure she was selling what customers wanted.

Poppy and Stella sells a mix of casual, dressy and comfortable clothing for all ages. Previously a shoe store, Poppy and Stella expanded to selling clothing over a decade ago. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Poppy and Stella sells a mix of casual, dressy and comfortable clothing for all ages. Previously a shoe store, Poppy and Stella expanded to selling clothing over a decade ago. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“I didn’t start the business to become rich or anything else. It was a way to kind of provide something that I didn’t see existed and it’s morphed into this community of, ‘You’re amazing just the way you are and we’re gonna meet you where you are,’” said Heuisler, who added that the store always tries to use fashion models of all races and ethnicities and avoids gendered language.

Walking through the Fells Point store, one can find Santa Claus mugs in different skin tones, Doc Marten boots, glittery, sequined shirts, festive earrings and many Coachella-worthy outfit combinations.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Like many other industries, the pandemic frustrated Heuisler’s efforts, especially since she decided to close her stores before the statewide mandated closure to protect customers and employees. Local neighbors supported her decision.

When Heuisler posted about closing on Instagram, customers, former employees and neighbors from over the years had nothing but kind words to share. Heuisler said she had to distract herself from the rush of emotions from the decision by painting one of her daughter’s rooms, but she knows it was the right thing to do.

“I’m the happiest I’ve been in years,” Heuisler said as she stood in the middle of the hardwood floors of the Fells Point store.

Kelley Heuisler, owner of Poppy and Stella, in her Broadway Street store on Dec. 7, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Poppy and Stella sells a mix of casual, dressy and comfortable clothing for all ages. Previously a shoe store, Poppy and Stella expanded to selling clothing over a decade ago. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Poppy and Stella sells a mix of casual, dressy and comfortable clothing for all ages. Previously a shoe store, Poppy and Stella expanded to selling clothing over a decade ago. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Emily Turner, a real estate agent in Baltimore, said working at Poppy and Stella was her first job when she got out of college in 2013. She wanted to pursue a career in fashion, and enjoyed working alongside other women with similar interests. Turner also appreciated how Heuisler assigned employees to roles and tasks that matched their personalities. Turner, also interested in art, remembers being asked to decorate the sandwich board sign about sales and promotions. She described Heuisler as a kind “whirlwind” in the store as she handled the day-to-day while juggling motherhood.

Melissa Bona, owner of Mint + Major, a boutique with locations in Towson and Ocean City, started out as a buyer at Poppy and Stella, but soon became friends with — and a mentee of — Heuisler.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It was always just that feeling of friendship when you walked through the door. That’s something that’s so special,” said Bona, who was devastated to hear about the closure, but said she was proud of Heuisler for following her heart and choosing her family.

They relied on each other a lot throughout the pandemic as business owners, wanting to make the wisest and best decisions for employees and customers. Bona always admired how Heuisler prioritized community over competition with her and other business owners.

Heuisler is going to spend January liquidating what’s left in the stores and possibly hold sales at the retailer’s headquarters and warehouse in Catonsville. Though she and her family live in Catonsville, she said they’ll always have a soft spot for Baltimore. She knows it can get a bad rap, but has no regrets planting the Poppy and Stella’s roots there.

Baltimore “is just a beautiful, amazing city and community, and I am so thankful and grateful that I was able to have a business here for so long and be such a part of it,” Heuisler said.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983. 

More From The Banner