Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Building of a Store

Shawn shows me the vacant storefront.
 Let me tell you a story. It is how the brick and mortar location of Boline Apothecary came to be- it's a long and winding road. It's the story of how small businesses happen. It's full of tiny triumphs and setbacks and I own every one of them.

In the beginning, there was me, Lily. I had spent my teen years and adulthood dabbling in holistic remedies and herbalism and finally attended an herb school in California in my thirties. I moved to Ohio in 2011 (and Columbus in 2012). Once settled in the Capitol City, I started helping friends one--on-one with small maladies and remedies. Never one to make a little of this or that, I made large batches of my remedies and found myself with a surplus of "leftovers". So I started selling online and started to attend a farmer's market (400 West Rich).

That pink!
One farmer's market led to another and another, and soon I was selling out of my remedies and adding products based on what folks asked of me in clinical visits and at the farmer's market booths.

In the meantime, I decided to enter the healing profession full time. So I began to take a master's program traditional Chinese medicine (thinking that it complemented the western herbalism quite well). I also started delivering Boline orders to small independent retail establishments. One of those establishments, City Folks Farm Shop, asked me to teach classes and so I did. I got to know the proprietor better and became friends with her. It was shopkeeper Shawn of City Folks, who cajoled me into looking into renting the retail space next door to her shop. But I was skeptical. I did not think my little business was ready for such a step. I mean, I sold well at the farmer's markets- but to fill a whole shop? That seemed more than a little daunting.

Painting progress!
I didn't think that I could afford such a venture and I did not think that anyone would lend me the money to start such a project, anyway. But Shawn had kindled a spark. I realized I could make the shop bigger than me and my line- it could be a sustainable community project! I realized that Columbus could have an actual apothecary- one that it was ready for! I fantasized about dried bulk herbs and high grade products that are hard to find all in one place. I realized that we could connect the farms in Ohio with the city folks who need medicinal herbs. In short, I started fantasizing on Facebook about the idea of not just a place for my products, but a much larger vision.

My first furniture.
Every major city (and plenty of smaller ones, too) she had visited had an herb store/apothecary, but Columbus had none. Yes, the City of Gahanna has the Herb Education Center (yay!), and the local coops have bulk dried herbs from hither and yon. But there was no place like Scarlet Sage in San Francisco, Moonrise Herbs in Arcata, CA, Rebecca's Herbs in Boulder, CO, or Flower Power in NYC. A place that was an epicenter for herbal healing and education with a variety of products and services available to the populace. A place to get eco friendly and holistic health care, toiletries, and supplies. And Columbus needed one, I thought. While my line was popular at the markets, if I combined forces with other local artisans, herbalists, and farmers the store could serve so many!

So the vision expanded from a shop of Boline-made products to a shop that included other amazing local and national lines of remedies and body care- as long as they met my criteria of "organic, ethical, pronounceable, and effective".  And I decided that I would carry things like dried bulk herbs, therapeutic grade essential oils (so hard to find here!), flower essences, and the like. But I thought, "we can do better than than that, after all, Ohio is rich in family farms!"

So I dreamed big- not just dried bulk herbs, but the majority of them grown right here in Ohio, supporting non-profit gardens and small family farms! Not just the same national lines everyone else carries, but a specialty place focusing on local artisans and healers! So I started reaching out to growers, producers and artists. And in my conversations, I heard about a way to make it happen:

Starting to take shape
with temporary furnishings.
One of the friends I have made on this journey was from the first farmer's market I did (400 West Rich Street): Jen. And Jen was now working for ECDI, a non-profit that helps grow businesses. They had a loan program. She was encouraging and pushed a little. So I went in and met Kevin, the loan officer and he explained the process- that was January 2014. I went to work. I filled out the huge paperwork packet and wrote a business plan and submitted it within two weeks. And then I waited. And waited. And waited.

And at the end of February, I got word that she was most likely approved, but no guarantees. But there was trouble on the horizon! The retail space that would be so perfect for my vision, the one that was affordable and next door to City Folks, was in demand suddenly! After being vacant for four months, there were a couple others that wanted it and unless I could come up with a deposit and sign a lease, I was going to lose it, even though my loan was so close to coming to pass.What's an herbalist with a vision to do? I started a crowdsourcing campaign. If I could raise the security deposit, I thought- I'll take the risk of signing a lease, even without the loan. (Gulp.) I crowdsourced enough for the deposit and a friend came forward with a short-term loan until the loan came through. This allowed me to put down the deposit and start work on the space, buying paint and hardware.

Scrap lumber = steeping shelf!
So sign on the dotted line I did. It was terrifying. A couple weeks into work on the space, I got the news! I was approved and in a week or so, I could close on the loan and get the money! Huzzah! In the end, they even split up the closings into two- so I could get half the money right away (from a women's foundation and the Small Business Administration) and the second half (from the City of Columbus) could take its bureaucratic time.

The first adventure in owning a store was painting and construction (not exactly an herbalist's forté). The store has been left an unfortunate pink and black combination that required lots of primer and paint. But eventually, the store became that signature green with brown trim.

As soon as I got the loan money, I hit the ground running, buying starting inventory, furnishings, and packaging. As it arrived, I was able to make more products. As I worked in the store, I invited more and more artisans to put their wares in the store. It started getting fuller and fuller. So many people came forward to help in some way- donating furnishings, their labor and hours of toil, and their expertise to making the retail space possible. There is no possible way that I could have applied in January and launched in April without the blessings and help of so many. In more ways than one, this store is a community effort and is richer for the hands and minds of myriad folks from different parts of the community.

The walls were my bane.
Plaster over cinder block
means special tools and a lot
of sweat and tears to install
Now that the store was open, I had a lot of work to do to get it to where I envisioned it. I needed to find suitable jars for the bulk section, make labels for each and every herb coming into the store for sale, research which essential oils to carry, make opening orders without maxxing out my micro-loan capital, get a new insurance policy, and so much more.

I am now in my second month of business. I still do the farmer's markets as promotion for the store and still supply small independent retail. But now I have a much bigger project to juggle. I hope to hire a part time staffer, get another day off a week, and eventually pay myself (hopefully by the end of the year). We shall see.

I am offering classes and workshops, tastings and events to bring folks in. So you should come in!

The story of the store continues every day. I am open for business and each week brings new exciting challenges and items in the door. Come by and see what is new and say hi!

Temporary furnishings.
Eric, who helped install shelves.
Eric again! So helpful!

My first signage.
My first farm delivery!
Seasonal Display!

New labels!
Happy herbalists male things.
A seasonal offering of seedlings.

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