Posted by: Josh Hinkle | February 10, 2009

Looking for Love

Balloons, Etc. owner, Jacob Cowger, and his dog, Cuddles, in the background

Balloons, Etc. owner, Jacob Cowger, and his dog, Cuddles, in the background

I remember the Valentine’s Day to first make a blip on my radar of skepticism. As a six-year-old at the elementary school in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, the holiday’s commercial appeal was already apparent. Autumn Johnson was the sweetest, prettiest girl in my grade. Everyone liked her. From the beginning, we’d fight over who spread their mat next to hers during nap time. Over the years, this evolved into her sweeping win of the homecoming crown. But I believe it was the delivery of a dozen red heart-shaped mylar balloons that set her educational popularity into motion.

The balloons were unprecedented in our kindergarten class. I think even the teacher was surprised that any parents would make such an effort. Autumn’s little desk could’ve floated away due to its helium attachment were it not for the crowd of admirers gathered around it.

It’s no news that Valentine’s Day, along with its commercial cousin Mothers Day, does a lot to keep specialty shops alive. But that breath (get it? balloons?) of life comes with its share of challenges, for sure. A few years ago, several schools in the Cedar Rapids area sent out a clear message to students. Latex allergies, something new since my day, would prevent any desk decorating from that point forward. Balloons were not allowed in the classroom. In the schools with this rule that still allowed deliveries, the balloons would mingle in a storage area like cattle out for cocktails until the final bell rang.

sparklestheclown

Sparkles, the Clown, a.k.a. Jacob Cowger

Covering this story, I turned to one of those local specialty shops, Balloons, Etc., 720 Center Point Rd. NE. What started as a home-based balloon delivery service in 1994 had expanded to a business that came to thrive on that day of love. Valentine’s Day was, by far, Balloons, Etc.’s busiest time of the year, with a normal load of more than 50 orders the week before the holiday itself. Jacob and Kimberly Cowger (a.k.a. Sparkles and Sprinkles, the Clowns) also sell magic and clown supplies, along with managing clown appearances, out of their store. But balloons bring in the bulk of this couple’s income.

They rolled with the punches. Their website now warns buyers of the “dangers” associated with latex. The pair simply pushes mylars and other items instead. The worst was behind them, until last summer.

Balloons, Etc. - June 13, 2008

Balloons, Etc. - June 13, 2008

When the Cedar River flooded Cedar Rapids, the Cowgers had more than three feet of water standing in their building. They were among eight such specialty shops facing a long and costly road of clean-up and rebuilding, not to mention dozens of other businesses in the same boat. Every dime that went into the Cowgers’ recovery efforts came from their own pockets. But unlike others, they received no funding from the Small Business Administration. Nearly three months after the disaster, they were back open and struggling.

Valentine’s Day couldn’t come soon enough at Balloons, Etc. Since the flood, business was slow. The Cowgers believe it’s because many customers didn’t know the shop was on its feet. Thinking the holiday would boost business once again, they decked the walls with red and pink inflatable merchandise and waited. Nothing.

Balloons, Etc. - June 13, 2008

Balloons, Etc. - June 13, 2008

One week before Valentine’s Day, they had only one order to fill. Their unlucky streak after the flood was continuing, amid the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Cowgers put on their first red noses. Jacob says he hates to admit that people are willing to sacrifice gifts like this when money is tight. After posting the original KCRG story about the shop’s trouble online, I knew that several people agreed with him. Some of the comments showed compassion for the couple, but others were critical.

One person wrote, “Society has to be on the way to change the way we have lived. Wasting money on things will have to go by the wayside. It’s tough enough to buy the necessities.” Another wrote, “Oh well, what would you expect with the ecomomy right now? Do they have a balloon that say’s ‘Happy DEPRESSION?'”

Sparkles and Sprinkles, the Clowns

Sparkles and Sprinkles, the Clowns

After the story aired, business picked up a bit. Sixteen orders that first day, but it’s still a long way from what they need. Other stores I called in Cedar Rapids are going through the same thing. The flood didn’t hurt them, but the economy is. They put special sales in place, just like Balloons, Etc., but customers just aren’t buying as much. I guess Valentine’s Day can not only be a commercial dream, but also a business nightmare.

I haven’t kept in touch with Autumn Johnson or her parents, for that matter, since moving away from Wynnewood. But these events make me wonder, if Autumn was a kindergartener today, would that enviable dozen balloons still be tied to her desk? Maybe a nice bouquet of roses instead? In a world where disasters wipe the smile off a clown’s face, where holidays hang over the economy, and where presents ultimately produce popularity, little Autumn better pray, at the least, she hasn’t developed any allergies… latex included.

Click here to watch the KCRG follow-up story about Balloons, Etc. and other similar businesses struggle through the week preceding Valentine’s Day. And watch the behind-the-scenes video below to see Jacob Cowger do what he does best.

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Responses

  1. I sincerely hope that Balloons, Etc. Survives. The 1-2 punch of The Flood followed by a week economy is enough to put any business out of business.

    Please let us know if Valentine’s Day was the shot in the arm they needed.


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