By Robin Mindt   Published Jun 18, 2002 at 5:52 AM

Karin Hembrock was born in an isolated part of New Mexico on a Navaho Indian reservation, where her family operated a trading post and rarely took vacations. When Hembrock started out on her own, she had hardly ever left the state.

But she longed to travel ... and travel she did. Her husband was an experienced globetrotter and began taking Hembrock all over the world. In eight years they visited more than 20 countries.

"We took trips all over the world and everywhere we went, we found amazing gifts for our friends and interesting architectural relics handmade by local craftsmen and women," Hembrock says. "Our gifts were so popular, it became apparent that people would buy them if they were sold in the United States."

She began collecting art, furniture and relics with an eye toward opening a store in Milwaukee. In June 2001, she launched From Afar in 6,000 sq. ft. of a recently restored historic building at 320 E. Clybourn St., selling merchandise from eight countries. Now, a year later, her inventory includes items from 15 countries and fills nearly all of the building, 14,000 sq. ft. She also plans to open two other locations and a gift shop in Bayshore Mall.


In addition to the largest collection of Asian art items in Milwaukee, From Afar has a rotating selection of furniture items and gifts. The most popular items include wish boxes handmade especially by Quechua Indians in Peru (the accompanying story reads, "These beautiful handmade boxes are made by the Quechua Indians, high in the Andes of Peru. They believe that if you speak your wish into one of these boxes, your wish will come true."); coffee and sofa tables -- which are so popular, there's a waiting list ; pots; garden benches; and household containers.

"People like to shop for gifts at From Afar because a good portion of our inventory is under $100 and because you can get the history of your gift printed on a scroll to make it extra special," says Hembrock. "If you buy at From Afar, you can be sure that no one else will give the same gift."

From Afar has done well downtown. Hembrock has sold more than six full semi-truck loads of merchandise with more on the way, including art from France and a shipment from Peru due in mid-June. It would seem that Hembrock has found the secret to retail success downtown.

"I think that in order to be successful in retail in downtown Milwaukee, you have to offer something truly unique at a good value and you have to show your customer base that you appreciate them," Hembrock says. "The real difference is service."

Hembrock's store, with its ever-changing inventory, is a great attraction for downtown workers who want a convenient shopping experience over their lunch break or after work.

"It's easier for downtown workers to shop here instead of going to a furniture or gift store in the suburbs," says Hembrock. "Plus, we give downtown workers incentives to shop here, like discounts and sneak peaks at new shipments. It's like the networking concept of a small town."

Why Milwaukee? Hembrock says she truly loves Milwaukee, especially the downtown and East Side, where she lives. She prefers downtown Milwaukee to Chicago because it is less expensive to do business and easier for her clients to travel to and from her store and park nearby.

"I am committed to city and business development in downtown Milwaukee," Hembrock says. "And I'm excited because I see good things happening. ... The PSAs and CSAs are a very important asset to downtown Milwaukee," says Hembrock. "I laugh at people that question the safety of downtown because I've been living and working here for years and have always felt safe, especially with these guys around. They take care of me."

You can call From Afar at (414) 272-2944. It is open seven days a week: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.