BIRD ISLAND -- Ever since two sisters-in-law opened up a quilting shop in Bird Island in 1998, this farming community has been getting used to strangers strolling about Main Street.
The visitors are obvious by the colorful, hand-knit garb many of them wear, and the tractor caps they don't.
Those in Minnesota and neighboring states who love the needlecrafts have been discovering the Gathering Friends Quilt Shop and making it and Bird Island a destination.
Now, business owners Kathy Squibb-Ludowese and Deb Jacobs are about to add a lot more color to this town.
Their business at the intersection of U.S. Highway 212 and Main Street in Bird Island will be featured as one of the Top Ten quilt shops in the U.S. and Canada in the May issue of "Quilt Sampler Magazine'' published by Better Homes and Gardens.
It was favored over some 3,000 other shops considered for the 2011 edition. A multi-page profile of the shop complete with photographs will introduce Gathering Friends to quilters all across North America. Also, the 10 selected shops will be celebrated at the Spring International Quilt Market in Salt Lake City, Utah.
No one is more eager to welcome the visitors the publicity is likely to generate than the two owners. Quilters may not look anything like farmers, but they are really no different, the two insist.
"Quilters are such nice people, and so friendly,'' said Squibb-Ludowese.
As much as anything, this also explains how the two friends happened to take up quilting and open their business. Jacobs said she fell in love with the people that enjoy quilting when she took a "how to'' class years ago.
Of course, she also points out that quilting is very easy to love all by itself. "It's such a de-stresser,'' said Jacobs. "It's like taking a vacation without going anywhere.''
When the two friends and self-described Bird Island "lifers'' decided to making quilting their business, they never even debated where they should open shop. They went straight to work converting a former bank building into a charming and spacious retail outlet for all those who love to quilt.
"Lots of tender loving care,'' they explained of the work that went into the 1902-vintage, brick building.
The tin ceiling shop with arched entrance and windows offers a special ambience. The sheer pleasure of exploring the now expanded shop and the wide and colorful assortment of fabrics and products offered explains why so many travel here.
But there's no doubt also that the two women's passion -- and talents -- for the quilting crafts play an equally important role.
In 2003, they started to self-publish their own books. Working side by side in a closet-sized office, they created books featuring quilting patterns and designs of their creation. They have published 20 books, and are working on their next. Many of their visitors -- from places as far as Illinois -- come into their store with pages copied from their books in hand.
They also host classes at the shop and at retreats, promote their shop at shows and on the Internet, and make sure it offers everything anyone could want. They describe it as a "full-service shop with over 3,500 bolts of quality cotton fabrics and the very latest in notions and patterns.''
The store has grown to include a staff of eight. The business partners said the store's success is only possible because of the great help they have enjoyed.
Bird Island has offered the store more than a quality work force. All of those customers who make the special trip to the store also take time to enjoy the small town charm around them. "They love it,'' said Squibb-Ludowese.
As for how the locals will handle the influx of new visitors the upcoming publicity might cause, the two women offered the opinion that they will take it in stride. The only time the locals seemed to take much notice of the store's visitors, they said, was a few years ago when an international quilting convention was held in Minneapolis. Visitors from all over the globe came to Bird Island by the bus load.