When you’ve been in the art and jewelry business in Baltimore for almost 20 years like Carol, you witness changes in the way people relate to one another. She observes: “There’s been a shift in what material things mean: we are buying less gifts for one another, and putting more money into learning, and being creative… and into our savings account.”
How does Carol cope with the changing tides of society? “Artists still make art – they can’t help it – but it’s shifted my role as a middle man between artists and consumers. Last time, we didn’t have phones, or the Internet, and we couldn’t Google the names of artists. So I provide space for local artists to share their work, and we also started using the room upstairs to hold workshops. For example, we have yoga classes, belly dancing, reiki, mindfulness. One of the classes here is pre-natal yoga, so we have a lot of pregnant happy ladies here! It keeps the energy flowing!”
Having a shop for almost 2 decades in the same neighborhood has created a close bond between Carol and the community. “The most memorable and gratifying thing about being here for this length of time is seeing so many wonderful customers come back again and again with their children, and seeing their kids grow up. There are so many connections that I didn’t realize when I first opened in this community of merchants. It’s just wonderful to see all of us grow together into a diverse, vibrant neighbourhood.”
Shops that have been around for as long as Carol’s provide an anchor for people who live there. Customers come in to shop, and conversations will flow. She says, “We always have something on our mind, there’s always something going on that we want to talk about. People I have met for the first time will open up, and it’s amazing to find friendship when you’re least expecting it.”
Carol’s children have flown from the nest, but balancing work and family was an early challenge. Any advice on this? “No one’s going to tell you it’s easy to be a mom while running a business.”
Simple and practical strategies go a long way. “That’s why I came to Baltimore: free babysitting and carpooling! All the grandparents were here to help us. Family ties are great. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up with my grandparents, and it’s really meant a lot for them to spend time together.”
It’s not easy being a single mama. “One day, my oldest decided there wasn’t enough food in the fridge, so she said: “Mom, I’ll work in the shop, and you go to the grocery store!”” She notes that this was her daughter’s strategic and creative way of making money while getting her to run errands and spend money!
However, “As soon as Claudia got her license, I gave her the car keys to use during the day, but I said: “Do not come back without your sister!” So I would walk to work – even in the winter I would walk – just so I wouldn’t have to get into the long carpool line every day. And she would take care of bringing her sister home!”
As the world around us changes, our lives turn multiple corners, and Carol has seen her share of personal changes. “At one point, we had 3 businesses, 3 cats, 2 dogs, and 2 kids – all in one rowhouse! Now I’m down to 1 cat.”
There is no formula for success, but savvy people usually have a few habits to get there. “I run. It’s all about the endorphins! We need some sort of exercise.”
While hanging out at her shop and waving at people on the street (“Sometimes, they wave back!”), Carol envisions her shop at a birdwalk on a beach. “Instead of a cigarette break, we can all take a ‘see the waves’ break!”
All things considered, Carol reflects: “This business has raised my two daughters, and that’s been the best thing about it.” She credits the flexibility and community that accompanied her business. Her daughters have since spread their wings into rural farming and urban theater. “As you can tell, we have it all worked out: I’ll be at the beach, they’ll be at the farm or in the city, and we’ll rotate around!”
Finally, any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the retail space?
“My best advice is to first get a job in retail, and make sure you really like it. You have to have experience. You can’t just say, I like the product, and be able to sell it. You have to be willing to be on your feet all day long, smile all day long, you have to have that energy, you have to be able to take care of yourself well enough to… give out the energy that you need to represent the artists. And it’s on everyone else’s time frame, not your time frame, so you have to have patience, and you have to be open to anyone who walks in. But, definitely having that experience in retail and knowing that you like it, is mandatory before you start a business in retail. That’s it. Just to say, I like art, it’s like saying, I like to cook, so I’m going to open a restaurant. You have to have that experience in dealing with the restaurant as a business.”
I remarked on Carol’s abundance of positive energy, which made her laugh. “You have to be, especially with children. As a mama, you have to rise to the occasion!”
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