Barb Schramm: From Songs to Styles

Barbara Schramm, a 1967 Moorhead High School graduate, spent much of her career singing opera in Europe before returning to her home town and opening her 3 Bees Boutique, now located in the Center Mall. (Photo/ Nancy Edmonds Hanson)

moorhead business news

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

When Barbara Schramm wound up her 22 years in Europe, the professional opera singer brought more than memories of leading roles and warm applause back home to Moorhead. She brought an enduring love of European style … and, unexpectedly, has made a new career of sharing it with the women of Fargo-Moorhead.

“I always liked the German way of dressing,” reflects Barb, a 1967 graduate of Moorhead High School. “They call it ‘lagenlook,’ the layered look. It’s colorful and flowy and easy. Your whole wardrobe is interchangeable – flowy, loose-fitting tops, easy pants. It has countless possibilities, and it’s so comfortable.” First introduced for full-figured women, lagenlook’s appeal has broadened to European women of all ages and sizes.

Barb first wore the look in 1990 while singing in musical theatre, and never stopped: “I made it my own.”

When Barb and her German chemist husband Roland Niess returned to Moorhead 15 years ago, that appealing combination of comfort and flair came along. Little did the retired opera singer know, however, as she settled back into her hometown, that her career would take an unexpected turn … one based not on the stellar voice that had carried her halfway around the world, but her own closet.

Her love of European style, now imported from German sources, began to catch the eye of friends. “After awhile, I’d built up a closet full of near-misses that didn’t quite suit me,” she remembers. “Then a few asked if they could buy them from me.” One thing led to another. Eight years ago, when she retired from a seven-year stint teaching voice at Concordia College, she took the first steps toward fashion, hanging a flag from her mailbox on Rivershore Drive that announced “The 3 Bees.”

Barb is the first “B” in her 3 Bees Boutique. The next? “Basement.” “It began with one room in our basement and nine women,” she reports. “By 2021, it was four rooms full, and 600 to 800 customers had come and gone.” Some visited once, but others became regulars.

After taking part in a vendor show at the Center Mall that March, she sensed possibilities of creating a full-time business. She opened a tentative pop-up shop in unoccupied space there and began accepting credit cards. The venture took off, and continues to grow, even in the sparse surroundings of the much-diminished downtown mall.

How is it going? “I’m still here,” the personable proprietor laughs. “My inventory is bigger than ever, and there’s never been a day – no matter how quiet the mall – when I haven’t had a customer.”

The 3 Bees’ racks and shelves are stocked with tops and bottoms she orders from Germany, Italy and France. Most are natural fibers, with cottons, linens and viscose (bamboo) from Italy dominating in summer, and heavier wools and blends from Germany during colder months. She carries some European shoes like Birkenstocks, and stands ready to order special fits and styles.

“American clothes are always more fitted to the body, and you feel the pressure to keep up with fashion year by year,” she observes. “Europeans shop differently. There’s more emphasis on individualism and quality.”

Her fashion venture remains an unexpected turn in a career centered on music. After graduating from Northwestern University with degrees in music education and conducting, she taught music in the Midwest for several years. While working on a doctorate in voice performance at the University of Minnesota, a college mentor encouraged her to go professional, to move to New York City. She never looked back (or finished that doctorate).

“I worked in New York for five years,” she says. In addition to roles in regional opera, she sang in Carnegie Hall many times. Then, in 1986, she landed funding to study in Austria … and she was off. Three years in the opera at Hof, Germany, led to decades of freelance work in opera and musical theatre. Along the way she met her husband Roland, then a chemist who worked with water quality in Lower Saxony. They were married in 2000 on a trip home to Moorhead.

In 2007, after Roland’s retirement, they returned here permanently, moving into the house on Rivershore that her parents Vic and Eunice Schramm had built years before. She taught voice lessons to students at Concordia for the next seven years before retiring.

Now matching her customers with looks both fun and flattering has become her main focus. Her shop is stocked with clothes that have caught her eye, are well-made and can be sold for a reasonable price. “I try to buy the best I can,” she explains. “I may get something in several colors, but you won’t find it in every size. I sell what I could afford myself.” Online reviews consistently stress the customer service she and her helpers provide: “I want to match what I remember from Shotwell’s, Sgutt’s and Waterman’s in days gone by.”

From her basement to her warm little shop in downtown Moorhead, Barb believes she’s found the future of personal retail, “especially where this economy is headed. People are thinking through their choices a little more. They’re going where they can get the best quality for the least amount you can,” she theorizes.

As for the future of the Center Mall, she says, “We don’t know any more than you do. That’s the problem now.” She is doing her part to increase visibility and traffic, helping organize vendor shows to bring in browsers. An indoor event with vendors, food and music is being planned to coincide with the Downtown Fargo Street Fair in July; another is on the calendar for September.

“I know I really enjoy being here,” Barb observes. “I love my customers, and the word of mouth is incredible. I like to think we’ve brought some more life into the mall.”

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