Before opening my store, my husband and I stumbled into a 1930’s stationery and record store that was cleaning out inventory (stationery for me, records for him). I worked on filling a trunk up with generations-old ephemera, greeting cards, wrapping paper and decorations. Once the trunk was full, I felt I had enough to open a shop (slightly off, but a romantic notion). I have always had a love for paper, packaging, trimmings and tiny collectible things, and the vintage aspect felt unique and special. That was over 16 years ago. For the past 16 years, we have been a part of Montclair, New Jersey’s downtown landscape.
The contents of my trunk needed a location to house my developing shop concept. There I was eight and a half months pregnant with my first child, Lucy, pacing up and down the streets of downtown Montclair to see any available and affordable spaces. It was bittersweet that we wound up originally taking a space that was my husband Adam’s favorite book and record store. We kept the original integrity of the bookstore, while making it our own. We spent 12 years in that space until we outgrew it and moved across the street to our current space. My dream of having a shop was becoming a reality. I was armed with the idea of creating an old-fashioned general store meets Vianne’s Chocolaterie from the movie Chocolat and the desire to create a tactile and overall sensory shopping experience. Getting to utilize my love for styling and merchandising in unexpected ways would be a cherry on top.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
After 16 years, I have had to morph and adapt to all of the ever-growing online offerings and work to maintain our aesthetic, without compromising our integrity or quality. It has always been my philosophy to acknowledge and adapt trends without being trendy.
Our strengths as a team have allowed us to become a destination for creativity and inspiration, satisfying very personal and unique customer requests that result in meaningful and memorable projects. That however doesn’t mean there haven’t been struggles and failures over the years. Even after 16 years, my greatest challenge is managing the peaks and valleys of retail sales. Cash flow during the slow times is honestly a real struggle. I’ve also learned the value of not taking on assignments purely to make money — not walking away when the red flags were apparent. Those assignments rarely work out positively. Through it all, I’ve learned to trust my initial instincts, and it’s ok to pass on assignments out of my comfort. I’ve learned to not be influenced just when I see the dollar signs.
Being an active part of our communities downtown has been one of our greatest strengths. I like to think we are on our town’s “tour” of creative shops. We are always trying to create inviting and unique displays outside our shop, including outdoor pop-up markets. It is always important to contribute to the community in terms of overall support and donations. It is a balance, though, because your main focus as a merchant is to be the best business you can be, so being present in your shop and offering great service is ultimately the best way to contribute to your community.
Our community has brought generally such an open-minded approach to our shop philosophy. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. We have been very fortunate to gain new business from the referrals of our current customers. There is a new hotel opening just up the street, which has the plan to support our small business by utilizing some of our special services. We are always open and eager for these opportunities. There is an overall shop small business incentive in the town which is also helpful.
We learned early on that it is vital to be an active member of our community. We work closely with the Montclair BID (business improvement district) for events and promotions, the Montclair Film Festival and other cultural events also bring a great audience to our town annually.
Having such an engaged community and our own presence within that community has allowed us to thrive as a brick and mortar in a generally e-commerce driven world. We try to maintain our brand aesthetic, which is a bit left of center from the trends online. It takes a lot of discipline to realize that you can’t be everything to everyone, and it sometimes means turning down assignments that aren’t true to our brand. In the end, it makes us stronger. When we first opened, I ran with the romantic notion that “if you build it, they will come”. It takes some time to gain and establish an audience, let alone a loyal one. Never take that loyalty for granted, because the retail climate is always shifting.
As a shop owner trying to balance between a brick and mortar and e-commerce world, I have learned that brick and mortars are an essential part of being a maker in a small business economy. We all need the tactile and sensory shopping experience, and to get off our phones and devices to have more personal face-to-face interactions.
Our retail shop provides a peaceful escape from the fast paced and unsettling times we are all facing in the world today. For me, the greatest strength and love of having a brick and mortar has been being able to create a personal space of our own handmade or curated creations, to work close enough to home to stay very engaged and involved with my children, to build a small business from the ground up and see it survive during a tumultuous time in this country and to be able to support the arts with my business in a creative community.
If you have the passion and longtime desire to open a shop, think it through and go for it. There are a million reasons not to take the risk, but if you have a strong idea and realize that you may not be in an instant success, you should persevere and stay determined. Owning a shop is a huge investment of time, and you will need to be the face of the business. Don’t expect someone else to run the shop for you, for quite some time.