Whether it’s an eclectic gift shop, toy store, bakery, bookstore, or purveyor of exotic spices, the South Sound is brimming with an array of small businesses that are helping revive neighborhoods, foster a sense of community, and bring a unique flare to the region. They are proving that big things can come in small packages.
“(Small businesses) are vested in this community. They are the people who are supporting the nonprofits, supporting the arts, supporting education. They also bring the character and the fabric to the community,” said Celia Nightingale, who directs the Center for Business & Innovation, a partnership between the Thurston Economic Development Council and South Puget Sound Community College.
With a growing population and strong job market, the region is a hotbed of opportunity. Smaller, local shops are no exception. They have a deep understanding of the local market and make buying decisions locally, and many have a predilection for items made in the Northwest. Advantages like these can help them weather external factors like big box retailers and online merchants, but that’s not to say that the path to long-term sustainability and profitability is easy.
“It just takes a lot of money to be a top player in the game, even if you are ‘just a local shop,’ judgment” said local business owner Paul Shepherd. “If you don’t have a lot of money or access to capital, then you are going to be like me when I started out, slugging it out for many years as a marginal business with lousy cash flow until you accumulate some capital and can hopefully catch a wave. I was OK with that, but if you have thoughts of quick riches, or even good cash flow in the early years, then think again.”
Shepherd, along with his business partner Alana Carr, operates several local shops, including Compass Rose in Olympia and Tacoma. Compass Rose is an “everyday gift store” that offers a wide array of products, including Pacific Northwest-inspired and -crafted artisan pieces.
“The Compass Rose stores are usually humming with shoppers and sales. We sell between $500 and $600 for each square foot of retail space, per year — which is really quite remarkable for our markets. It shows how much people appreciate good, friendly, local retail,” Shepherd said.
Then, in 2014, when he heard that the Wind Up Here toy store in Olympia was closing, Shepherd knew he needed to fill the void and give the community back its beloved shop. In 2014, Shepherd and Carr opened Captain Little. Roughly 1,000 people attended the grand opening.
“We knew it would not be a big money maker, but sometimes you just do things because you have the knowledge and skill and know you can. And there are additional nonfinancial benefits — like joy. Who wouldn’t want to own a toy store?” Shepherd said.
Their fourth and most recent venture is Lapis, an artisan jewelry shop in Tacoma. Shepherd noted that each of the four retail locations sells between $1 million and $2 million annually.
Also in Tacoma, tucked away inside Hotel Murano, is Creative Forces Gifts & Sundries. Owned by local artist Carolyn Osborne, this small gallery/gift shop is an avenue to showcase Osborne’s work, as well as promote the works of other local artists. The business opened in 2012, and, today, there are more than 60 local artists represented.
“It’s always been my vision to keep it local, and that’s what I’ve done,” said Osborne. “A challenge has been getting local people to know (the shop) is there because it’s in a hotel.”
To help drive awareness, promote the featured artists, and engage the local community, Osborne began hosting art and wine nights on the third Thursday of each month. The hotel helps with the event by providing the space, tables for the artists, and half-priced wine on those nights.
Fostering a sense of community also is what helped revive long-established Browsers Book Shop in downtown Olympia, said Andrea Y. Griffith, a former medical librarian who bought the used-book retailer in late 2014 with her husband and his parents.
“I wanted to have a chance to have a positive impact on downtown. You could say it was a failing small business. It was not doing well. A good day was about $100 in sales,” Griffith said.
Financial advisors warned Griffith of the risks but, enticed by the challenge and the opportunity to purchase both the building and the bookstore business, she decided to make the leap. Since that time, Griffith has renovated the store; incorporated new books into the mix; and has promoted the complimentary use of an upstairs communal space to writing groups, committees, and other community groups.
“What’s worked for us, I think, is we have some community space upstairs … and we’ve built up the community. We have excellent turnouts for book clubs. We have a cookbook club that’s really popular that fills up immediately and then goes into a wait list. We pick a cookbook and everyone brings a recipe from the cookbook, so it’s like an epic dinner and it’s really nice,” said Griffith. “That’s what has changed the store around is just a sense of community. And all my employees read a lot, and we can talk books with you. You can’t have that interaction online in the same exact way.”
Griffith acknowledged that running a small business, while rewarding, comes with a great deal of challenges. Chief among them: maintaining a work-life balance, finding and retaining quality staff, and learning from your mistakes (yes, you will make them).
One local resource Griffith said she found especially beneficial as a small business owner is the Business TuneUp training course. Business TuneUp is part of ScaleUp Training Series, a three-part business training program offered through the Thurston Economic Development Council Center for Business & Innovation. In addition to the Business TuneUp training course, ScaleUp also includes the Build Your Market course and Financial Mastery course.
For small business owners located in Tacoma, it is important not to overlook the various resources — like gap financing options, zoning and permit assistance, and connections to key business leaders — that are available through the city, said Carol Wolfe, Community and Economic Development Supervisor at the City of Tacoma.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to the city, because we’re not just trying to tell you what we are going to require of you,” said Wolfe. “We are going to share with you all of our knowledge and all of our private sector contacts that can help you make an informed decision because we want you to succeed.”