(Photographed at Clementine: Owner Linda Walsh, left, with Carmilia’s owner Linda Sabee, right)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Linda Sabee felt “rattled” when it happened.
Linda Walsh says, “It shook me to the core.”
They were referring to the closure two months ago of the West Seattle Junction boutique Sweetie.
“This is serious,” Sabee remembers thinking.
We sat down with “The Lindas” one recent morning to talk about the life of a shop owner, beyond the overview we published earlier this month, talking about small businesses’ contributions to the community, and to its character. Theirs is not the story of “what it’s like for boutique owners,” but rather, what it’s like for small independent local retailers of all types right now.
Here is where, to paraphrase, the fabric hits the road.
Carmilia’s has been in The Junction going on 11 years. “People come in the store and say, ‘You’ve been here 11 years, you’re doing fine.” But that’s no guarantee she’ll be there another 11 years – or even another 11 months – without “continued daily, weekly, monthly support from people in the community. It’s not a business plan that works if you have many days in a row when not many people come in and buy something.”
They have not initiated this conversation, you should know, to sing the blues.
They just want to make sure you know they can’t sing without you – and that it’s not just a song about them; it’s about the role small independent local businesses play in the community ecosystem, beyond an exchange of money for goods.
Clementine’s history is a little shorter than Carmilia’s. We know it better because it dates back toward the start of WSB. Seven years ago, we reported on a sighting at what was then a closed storefront at 4447 California SW: WATCH THIS SPACE, written on the paper covering windows.
“OK, we will,” was the resulting WSB headline.
In September of that year, Walsh opened Clementine, after years of other careers, including teaching.
Sabee is also a former teacher, and tells the story of how she opened Carmilia’s because she “saw this need for a cute shop, some kind of boutique that would answer the need of young moms in the neighborhood like myself … I went to the Chamber (of Commerce) and asked if they knew of any space, completely on a whim. They said, go talk to Jack Menashe – and he said the spot right next to him, formerly Margaret’s Apparel, was going to be open in September.” In July of 2002 she struck a deal; in August, she flew to L.A. to look for clothes to sell; in November, Carmilia’s opened. “It was super fast, on the fly … there wasn’t a lot here that was young and fun and new and contemporary, and I decided to create it.”
If you haven’t been to Carmilia’s at 4528 California SW – it’s a “contemporary women’s boutique, some clothes, some accessories, some handbags, candles, lotions, occasionally little lipsticks, glosses, jewelry, sometimes some lingerie … at a variety of price points.” That includes $20 T-shirts, she is fast to say, mindful some might think fashion = high price tag. (More on that later.)
At Clementine, Walsh is known for shoes. Seattle Magazine even photographed her with a shoe on her head. But it’s not only a shoe store. What it is, has evolved: “You have to stay relevant, or you’re not in existence. … The store is very different from what we opened (as); it’s what people ask for.”
As the three of us talk in her shop on a sunny, breezy morning, Walsh reads from a manifesto of sorts:
“Say goodbye to cookie-cutter style. We don’t want to look like every other woman, so why shop like everyone else? … We’re making a statement, giving you access to local and independent designs you can’t find anywhere else. Say bye-bye to fast fashion, hello to style with intent.”
She also notes, “We support local designers.”
And there’s a ripple effect. Both for the designers they support, and for their operations; buying trips out of town, out of state, aren’t as numerous as they used to have to be. Good thing, since those trips can run up to four digits quickly, just for travel expenses.
Sabee notes, “I hear so many times, I come to your shop to buy something for an event beause i know I’m not going to find it anywhere else … it’s a unique piece that you don’t see in the big department store, and it means a lot to people”
Walsh mentions being able to offer feedback directly to Seattle-area creators – feedback from customers.
And then we get to the topic of their feedback for each other. They’ve built a mutual-support mini-network, relying on honesty as well as sympathy.
“We had been hesitant to talk to each other about how things are going,” Walsh explained. “You always want to put a positive spin – if I see several bad days in a row, I think, ‘is it something I’ve been doing?’ So we started sharing information …”
Sabee jumps in: “We’d start talking, and we could tell from each other’s voices, how it’s going …”
“It’s been stressful,” acknowledges Walsh.
And yet their collaboration and commiseration has helped.
“Though we share customers,” Sabee explains, “we’ve been able to be honest and open with each other about ‘how much I did today,’ and it’s really been this bond.”
Walsh says bad days bring back bad memories of the depths of when the recession really hit home – at first, she said, “We thought the Northwest was insulated … then (the Washington Mutual collapse happened), and we canceled orders, I had to lay off staff. But we figured it out, we’re resilient, we’re smart. Then, to have a bad first quarter … it’s feeling like the recession all over again.”
“But worse,” interjects Sabee. “If you listen to the news, the numbers are up, but not here, not for us … I feel like people are shopping so much more online, or, this notion of, ‘well, I can’t afford to shop small boutiques locally, so I will go to Target, to Wal-Mart’ … it’s penny-wise, pound foolish if we’re not here to support your community groups. We give to everything … Target dooesn’t donate to your auction; Wal-Mart doesn’t give to your Little League team.”
“After the recession, people realized it was very clear that if they didn’t support us, we wouldn’t be here,” Walsh added. “We felt the love. But online shopping is quiet, silent, you can’t see how it’s impacting us, so people don’t realize they need to come out and support us the same way they did during the recession.”
The practice known as “showrooming” is hitting brick-and-mortar retailers hard. People come into their shops, take a look, check their phones for a price comparison, and if they find the item cheaper somewhere online, that’s where they place the order.
It, too, is invisible to other would-be customers. Sabee says that her shop’s longevity leads customers to assume “you must be fine … You want to keep a positive face, you don’t want to give your customers a big sob story when they walk in, ‘wah, wah, please buy a bracelet,’ but you have to find some way to give the message, it’s NOT always fine.”
There is no cushion for small businesses. Revenue is usually channeled right back into operations.
“There’s a misconception that as a small-business owner you have deep pockets and you’re flush and if you’re selling high-end stuff, you must be fine,” Sabee continues, adding that even the “high-end” perception is not an accurate description for a store like hers. “We try so hard to keep a range of price points – you could come in and buy a 20-dollar bracelet, and that makes a huge difference to me, that’s not a zero day. … I remember having a $42 day in my second year and that was ‘bad,’ and now, I’m like ‘woo, 42 dollars!’.”
“We’re not asking for irresponsible charge-your-credit-cards-to-the-hilt kind of shopping,” says Walsh. “We’re talking about the shopping we all do. Say, for Father’s Day, you’re going to buy a gift – a growler at Beer Junction, barbecue tool at JF Henry.”
That mention prompted discussion of JF Henry, steps away from where we were chatting at Clementine, and how you might not be aware of its extensive inventory of kitchen tools and cookware if you’ve never gone inside – a window display can only communicate so much. We go on to discuss other Junction stores – Terjung’s Studio of Gifts comes up, with its candy counter, balloons, and birthday party stuff, again, something that might not be on your radar if you’ve never gone inside.
Returning to the topic of online shopping, Walsh mentions a recent citywide survey about “what it means to Seattle shoppers to buy local,” and an apparent desire among them for small independent local retailers to have “more of an online presence … But it’s tough,” notes Walsh. “It’s like (running two businesses), and I’d rather be working (directly) with the public.” She has an online store, just the same, because “it’s what I need to do.” She also says she tracks online pricing and contrary to some belief, “boutique prices are NOT higher, if I’m carrying a product that’s widely available. For things made in Seattle, though, yes, they cost a little more.” The higher prices come with community benefit, she points out – from environmentally friendlier materials to jobs for local seamstresses.
Stocking local merchandise also means the shopkeeper has a direct relationship with the maker and can help them be “responsive and relevant.” Walsh recalls talking with a handbag-maker about customers’ feedback that the bags’ cell-phone pockets needed to be large enough for smartphones.
Personal relationships are a big part of what they see as the value added by having brick-and-mortar local independent businesses in a neighborhood. Not just for the businessperson, but for the customer – and these entrepreneurs are customers too:
“Personally, I love a diverse business district,” Walsh explains. “I like knowing the people.”
“Having a relationship with store owners, restaurant owners – you get to know people. You don’t want to just have big chains,” Sabee adds.
The relationships include service. Walsh recalls buying a clay pot from JF Henry next door: “I had never tried cooking with clay pots – but Tom (Henry) took the time to explain it to me. … I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Sabee smiles at her: “I consider you a friend, and you were a customer.”
Walsh recalls talking to Sabee when she first considered opening up a shop. Now, they analyze trends together, in addition to the aforementioned commiseration. They believe West Seattle residents are spending money in shops – but maybe in other districts, such as downtown, as well as online. Walsh says a friend with a downtown boutique between the Seattle Art Museum and Pike Place Market is doing really well, with a “steady stream of traffic and tourists.”
The Junction might not get many tourists, but with 85,000 people in West Seattle – and more coming – there’s certainly potential for more shopping. A lot more shopping. The Lindas wonder aloud what it will take – how they can “coax” people into giving local shops a try.
“Come into the stores – once you meet us, we’re lovely people,” Sabee grins. “We’re like bartenders – the things people have shared with me .. the connections you make … children, families, parents, dogs, they’re your friends. If they do come into our stores, I think they’ll get that.”
This brings the conversation back around to the stores that are gone. Like Sweetie.
“If I had to close my store … the thought brings tears to my eyes,” Sabee said. “It’s my lifeblood. Maybe people think these are hobbies? (But) it would be devastating. I know Joeanna [Sweetie proprietor] went out with grace and a positive attitude … it would be horrendous to close my store and I don’t ever want to have that.”
“I’m an extrovert – I would crumble without interaction,” Walsh adds. “I don’t think it enhances our ability to get along with one another if we’re not talking to each other.” That rolls into the big picture, she posits, recalling the violence-prevention curriculum she once represented as an education-company salesperson: “People should know that good social skills means good violence prevention – you wind up not fighting because you learn how to join in.”
The topic of community keeps coming back over and over again. That has to be considered as a benefit of a bricks-and-mortar shopping district. And you might have to cut your local retailers a bit of slack. Wish they were open later? That costs money – money they don’t have if you’re not shopping there. Looking for more inventory? It’s “chicken and egg,” point out the Lindas – “if more is bought, then more is stocked.” And consider the value you don’t see right in front of your face in their stores – the auction donations to local schools and nonprofits, the chance you might need something at the last minute for a special occasion, no time to order it online and have FedEx get it to your door.
“I love this neighborhood,” Sabee stresses, noting that she can go into a store or restaurant and see and greet people she knows as customers and friends. “I love being in my community, and I want to keep doing this.”
Walsh does too. “We have a cool little business district.”
But its existence is not guaranteed, if it’s not supported. “This is what we stand to lose,” Sabee says, while expressing hope that the year will pick up. She’s already excited about fall clothing lines.
Tonight (Thursday 6/27), by the way, you can drop by Carmilia’s, 6-9 pm, for an evening event featuring its clothes, Clementine shoes, and makeup. (This hadn’t yet been announced when we sat down to talk with “The Lindas” earlier this month, but as we finished the story, we noticed it on Carmilia’s Facebook page.)
If apparel and accessories are not your thing, visit any local independent store – maybe one you’ve never set foot in before; you might be surprised.