Bob and Chris Kirlin, owners of the Lexington House and Honeysuckle Gallery.
What They Needed to Do…
by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
Bob Kirlin had to travel a million miles to find Brown County. “I traveled for a living,” he says. “All over the United States, Hong Kong, Korea. The last ten years I was never home. That beat me up.” When Delta Airlines sent a letter congratulating him on flying a million miles he knew it was time for a change.
“Two weeks later I went to the doctor. He called me the day after Christmas and said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got prostate cancer,’” Bob can laugh now. “So between the reality of flying a million miles and the cancer Chris and I looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe there’s something else for us to do.’”
At the time the Kirlins were living in Cincinnati. They sold their interest in their apparel company but, “had no idea of what we were going to do. Didn’t have enough money to retire—too young. Plus I’ll probably never retire.”
“We looked at everything,” his wife Chris adds. “We spent nine months researching and looking at Dairy Queens and Sears appliance stores but I just couldn’t see myself selling refrigerators,” she laughs.
They had been coming to Nashville for years as tourists while their son Brad went to school at nearby Indiana University. Years later, while the couple was visiting the campus with younger son Chuck, Chris took the afternoon off to shop in Nashville.
“The more I looked at what was here the more I realized that this is what we needed to do,” she says. “We went back home and very shortly after that we developed a concept of doing a retail store.” They decided to create a shop dedicated to furnishing the rustic flavor of Brown County homes.
That shop, the Lexington House, is right downtown on Main Street, across from the stolid brick Village Green Building. For the next year, while selling their house in Cincinnati, the couple commuted, with Chris staying mostly in Cincinnati and Bob living in a small room above their store.
“My parents said that if your marriage survives this year it’ll survive anything,” Chris says.
“It was an adventure,” Bob agrees as they laugh. “We’ve been here nine years.”
“We would not want to live anywhere else,” Chris adds.
“We said from day one that wherever we go we want to be involved in the community,” Bob continues. “Chris is on the Chamber of Commerce. We’re both involved in the Historical Society. I’m on the Convention Bureau Board, chairman of the Trail Committee, on the Main Street Committee, the Rotary and the Town Council, which I really enjoy. We put a lot back in the community but we think that it’s important to leave the community better.”
“We both have upbringing where it is very important to give back,” Chris adds.
It was the couple’s interest in local history that helped inspire their role in fostering the recent community production of David Hawes’s and Al Cobine’s musical Dinger of a Day, inspired by the legend of Abe Martin. Thinking about it still gives Bob chills. “I’m 63 years old and I’ve been involved with a lot of events but that by far was my most rewarding. It was so much fun, so much work.”
“Everybody all over town was singing it,” Chris laughs.
“Not many communities could do it,” Bob continues. “Not one person in the show was out of Brown County. Nobody got paid. Pit band was free. Those guys dedicated a lot of nights to the play. This community . . . whatever you need or whatever you want I’ll guarantee you it’s here. It seems that when people retire down here that’s when they start their second life.”
“The way we make our living is being shopkeepers,” Chris continues. “But there is so much more to Brown County. Bob and I try very hard to give visitors a broad picture. It’s fun for us to share the histories with them, the things that are here to do besides shop. That’s always fun for us and hopefully they go out and explore a little bit of Nashville.”
Recently the Kirlins bought a second shop in town. “Behind us is a little place called the Honeysuckle Gallery. Like idiots we now have two stores instead of one,” Bob laughs. Unlike the furnishings and old hickory furniture that are featured in the Lexington House, The Honeysuckle Gallery is a more lighthearted, whimsical store with gifts and tabletop items. It’s located on Honeysuckle Lane, off Main Street. Once again Chris and Bob are separated by distance although this time, Bob notes, “She’s right down the alley if I need her.”
Five years ago they were featured in an episode of the Home and Garden television program The Good Life. The director for the piece asked what this busy couple did for a hobby. After thinking a minute they told him “We go out on our deck and listen to it rain.
“These people from Chicago looked at us like, ‘What in the world are you smoking?’” Kirlin remembers. “The last day they were filming a storm came through. The guy says, ‘I want to go back to the house and hear it rain.’”
“Once they heard it,” Chris continues the story, “it was like, ‘We got this now. How relaxing it is just to sit and let the world go by.’”
Bob laughs. “I didn’t think they were going to leave.”