Life as an independent small local shopkeeper: ‘The Lindas’ tell it like it is

June 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm | In West Seattle businesses, West Seattle news | 30 Comments

(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.

She and Walsh also own and operate Junction boutiques – Carmilia’s and Clementine, respectively.

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.

30 Comments

  1. I have and do shop at Clementine. The quality of the shoes that they carry is excellent. Very well made. Although Seattle is more fashionably relaxed it’s great to have a place I can buy fun shoes that I can actually wear in our weather. The store is also involved in showcasing local artists and is a gem in our community. Remember when you’re looking for gifts try a gift card at a place you enjoy patronizing. Sometimes just inviting friends and family to the neighborhood via a gift card can make a world of difference to a small business. People enjoy ‘experience shopping’. West Seattle is a wonderful community, get out and go play at our local shops.

    Comment by Heather — 3:55 pm June 27, 2013 #

  2. I recently made the conscious choice to buy my dog food at Next to Nature in the Junction, rather than buy it on Amazon. Online is cheaper and they deliver it to my door, but I like our Junction business district so I decided it’s more important to support the businesses there. An extra $5 per bag of dog food isn’t going to bankrupt me, but customers choosing to buy from Amazon might bankrupt the local store.

    Comment by hopey — 4:55 pm June 27, 2013 #

  3. I love Clementine and stop in frequently. I especially love the Prairie Underground line they carry that is hard to find elsewhere–it’s very “northwesty,” which I love. I find fun pieces there that are unique, but mostly I enjoy soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying that small boutique-feel that makes me smile. Support local shops because they’re fun, funky, quirky, and unique!

    Comment by Amy — 5:13 pm June 27, 2013 #

  4. To both of the ‘Lindas’…thank you for being part of our business community and for supporting our greater community.

    It is important that we support our local business on a continuous basis–otherwise they won’t be here for us. Remember, when we spend our dollars at locally owned businesses, we help protect and improve our economy. In fact, economic studies show that those regions that keep their money local, pull out of recessions more quickly.

    Many know I had a house fire last year and just recently moved back home. Having lost most everything, I have a lot of shopping to do for furniture, kitchenware, clothes, shoes, etc., and am committed on spending the largest percentage of that money at our local businesses. We have so many great businesses, it’s pretty easy to find most of what I need right here in West Seattle. Plus it is much more pleasant to shop locally, with friendly faces and smaller stores.

    Comment by Teri Ensley — 6:09 pm June 27, 2013 #

  5. PS. I’m wearing one of my new pairs of shoes today that are from Clementines! The are gray and lavender! Gorgeous and cozy!

    Comment by Teri Ensley — 6:10 pm June 27, 2013 #

  6. Thanks to the WSB for bringing this to our attention, and to the local businesswomen for speaking up. I have a hard time convincing my friends that buying local is worth it, and probably less expensive in the long run. The health of our local communities is far more important than feeding the big chains in the pursuit of dubious bargains.

    Comment by Robert — 6:13 pm June 27, 2013 #

  7. Hard earned money should go to hard earned businesses. We certainly have those here in West Seattle.

    Comment by shed22 — 6:47 pm June 27, 2013 #

  8. Thank you for this reminder. I love both stores, but sometimes I just go to Nordstom without a thought. I am gonna think again. Love these ladies

    Comment by SAR — 6:51 pm June 27, 2013 #

  9. For consumers the norm these days is ” renting ” merchandise shoes, tents, dishes, vita mixers its appalling and maybe too much of a draw for them to buy from large chains as opposed to ” local “. Generally speaking when I buy something I take ownership of it period. The junction I must admit has never really attracted me much the businesses and I have lived here my whole life. I don’t what it is. Maybe if they had more hardware stores or a bike shop. I have always wondered what you folks with your phone I your face walking down the sidewalk in The Junction were doing ……… oh excuse me sorry. Online shopping. Maybe I’ll stop in and buy something at Clementine some time now for a present for that special.
    .
    I sure wish more of the store owners would not only sweep up debris and cigarette butts along the sidewalk but also right along the parking strip where unfortunately a lot of debris is going from The Junction right into our local waters.

    Comment by NW — 7:05 pm June 27, 2013 #

  10. I purchased two beautiful sweaters at Clementine. The Three Dot line is very cool and resonably priced. Linda is always so very nice and gracious to me which I appreciate.

    Comment by Seattlite — 8:04 pm June 27, 2013 #

  11. Lots of these little funky places down in the Magnolia district of Burbank, CA. Reminds me of them.

    Comment by G — 8:22 pm June 27, 2013 #

  12. Clementine is the only place I will buy my shoes… (other than running shoes & REI purchases) … I love it and Linda is wonderful! I am a shop local only kind of girl and to be honest- I just hate to leave West Seattle- two kids and a busy schedule make shopping local so much easier and I love supporting our small businesses. I was super sad that Sweetie closed- I loved the AG line of jeans and many of the styles. It was always a one stop place for me when I needed a dress for a school event, or work party or when I wanted my new pair of favorite designer jeans. I have visited Carmelia’s and have found some things, but would love to shop there more often. Any thoughts at adding some new designers in the store?

    Good luck to all the awesome small business owners in West Seattle. We appreciate you!

    Comment by Athena — 8:44 pm June 27, 2013 #

  13. I love both shops and always try to shop local, however, I do think the Junction could do more to entice shoppers. The area is outdated. When you look at other “downtown” areas you will see a difference. Edmonds, Snohomish, Ballard, etc. have invested in making their hometown, local shopping areas interesting and inviting. We need to clean up the Junction and put some money toward making it more inviting.

    Comment by Margaret — 9:16 pm June 27, 2013 #

  14. I try and shop at places like this, and every time, those few things that seem ‘right’ are only in a size 2/small/etc. So … away I go. I can’t expect a small shop to stock everything, but sometimes there’s a reason we have to shop elsewhere, the consumer shouldn’t take all the blame. Store owners need to either figure out how to keep us coming in or accept the loss. I’ve not once had anyone offer to get something in in another size.

    Comment by Mark S. — 10:12 pm June 27, 2013 #

  15. Carmilia’s is where I bought my two beautiful sweaters not Clementine — sorry for the mistake. Anyway, as I said above Linda has a great line of clothing with Three Dot being a favorite. Linda and her employees give great customer service.

    Comment by Seattlite — 7:25 am June 28, 2013 #

  16. I’m so glad I took the time to read this story. I’ve lived in WS for 12 years and have often thought about checking out both of these stores but unfortunately never have…now I will. It would be sad to see any of our locally-owned stores close in the Junction. Reading this article made me realize I really need to do my part to keep them open and thriving.
    .
    All of the addition of apartments/condos lately have had me concerned about how this will continue to affect the commute out of WS. However, now I’m hoping that the added population will bring more shoppers to the Junction and make us all realize we don’t need to leave WS to get our shopping done…why would we want to? :-)

    Comment by sun*e — 8:11 am June 28, 2013 #

  17. Does Carmilia’s carry plus sizes? I always thought not. If they did, or do, I will shop there often! I have the money to burn, and am sick of Lane Bryant being my only option at size 18. PLEASE someone carry plus sized fashionable clothing – I’d be all over it!

    Comment by AG — 8:14 am June 28, 2013 #

  18. I own a business in West Seattle too. I am always conscious of where my dollar is going and I believe more people just need to be aware that they should place their money where they want to see growth. If we want more funky little shops, we have to shop there. I’m not sure I REALLY understood this myself until I had my own place.

    Comment by Tammy — 8:32 am June 28, 2013 #

  19. This is a great story and I really enjoyed reading about these ladies and their shops. There are many interesting and cool businesses in West Seattle and the story is a reminder to shop locally. My favorites are Curious Kidstuff, Northwest Art and Frame and Next to Nature. I also appreciate Tram at Tram’s Salon. She created a space where families can have affordable haircuts and still be treated like a “spa” guest. Thanks for the story .

    Comment by Shop — 9:03 am June 28, 2013 #

  20. To NW et al:

    Psssssst: bike shop coming….stay tuned, more details coming soon.

    Comment by Ducky — 9:07 am June 28, 2013 #

  21. @AG: I agree completely. I would so much prefer to purchase something unique from a local boutique, but the size thing stymies me every time. :-( I have purchased shoes from Clementine’s, though. Love the selection and ALWAYS get compliments!

    Comment by Ms. Picky — 10:21 am June 28, 2013 #

  22. I hope shopkeepers don’t assume that everyone that looks in shops without buying anything is ‘showrooming’. I don’t even have a ‘smartphone’ to look up prices elsewhere. my cell phone makes phone calls. there’s a struggling middle class. sometimes they too would like to ‘window shop.’ maybe in the past i’d been able to afford to shop at places like this but not lately. I’m just trying to make sure I have enough to cover the bills and have money left over for gas and groceries.

    I support the local junction businesses when I can but honestly, I haven’t bought much in the way of new clothes (except for new undies and socks, etc) or shoes in about 4 years. I am tired of people guilt tripping others for not shopping locally. some of us JUST DON’T HAVE THE MONEY.

    Comment by ASS.U.ME — 10:46 am June 28, 2013 #

  23. and I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t buy clothes often (4 years or MORE). when I’m done with my clothes, they are usually so worn that they are not even worth donating to goodwill. if I do, my clothes probably do not ‘pass go’ they probably are headed directly to the shipping containers headed for developing countries.

    Comment by ASS.U.ME — 10:54 am June 28, 2013 #

  24. It’s nice to see this profile. Independent retail is an important part of the retail landscape and, while it doesn’t have to be exclusive, this post is a nice reminder to keep these shops in mind. Personal plug- I own an independent retail shop in Chicago and an online resource called Little Independent which is a marketplace for indie retailers. http://www.littleindependent.com/
    Again, very happy to see this profile. Thanks!

    Comment by Lesley Tweedie — 3:17 pm June 28, 2013 #

  25. This is great. It is important for people to remember to shop local. Especially with construction starting in the Junction. Don’t let that keep you away. If you do, the stores you liked may not be there after the construction is done. Go past the construction at the old Petco sight and don’t forget Curious Kidstuff, The Sneakery, bang Bar and the rest of the business around tyere.

    Comment by Libertybell — 7:30 pm June 28, 2013 #

  26. AG: Nope, they don’t — I stopped in and asked one day b/c I’d LOVE to do more shopping in the Junction. I do still try to frequent some of these boutiques though for accessories, but they will never get any of my clothing dollars and that’s o.k., I know they can’t serve every segment of the population.

    Even though they aren’t boutiques and are made for the masses, I would encourage you to check out Macy’s, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, sometimes even Avenue has decent stuff (although I find the quality is lacking a bit at Avenue). My current favorite retailer for Pluz-Size though? Land’s End — VERY high quality, true to size and it’s the only online shopping I will do b/c you can return any of it to Sears. The Tukwila and Eastgate locations have Plus-Size departments.

    Comment by jissy — 8:06 pm June 28, 2013 #

  27. I just moved to California — today I wore some of the most adorable flip flops with pompoms that I got from Clementine last year. Ditto with a dress from Carmelias. The Lindas have great eyes for style and many of my favorite pieces are from these stores. Oh— and I love JF Henry’s, too.

    Comment by Shirley ease — 9:58 pm June 28, 2013 #

  28. I must admit that I do not patronize small, local stores much – but for a less obvious reason. Unlike one of the Lindas, who describes herself as an extrovert, I am one those strange introverted types who does not always want much interaction. So, I actually prefer the impersonality of a large store where I can shop in my own particular way and not feel I am being put on the spot. (It’s unfortunately the case that I usually choose a Starbucks over a more interesting alternative – mainly because I know I will just be able to blend into the background.)

    I know this must sound awful – especially as I DO like to see a neighborhood like the Junction alive with such small businesses for OTHER people to enjoy – but I suppose it’s a good thing there aren’t too many people like me:)

    On the other hand: I did buy a used laptop at West Seattle Computers! But I was in there at a very busy time of the day, and I got to play happily with the available models at my leisure. By the time the owner was available to help me (and he was very apologetic that I had been left unattended for so long) I had already made my decision, and a couple of quick questions confirmed it. Five minutes later, I was leaving with my purchase that I have been very happy with. So I guess there is hope for me.

    Great article though! It’s a tough business to be in and I am glad these two owners are making it.

    Comment by Last53BusRider — 11:51 pm June 28, 2013 #

  29. I love these stores. I count on Carmilia’s whenever I have an important business meeting or wedding or other occasion when I need to look up-to-date.

    Comment by Gatewood — 4:00 pm July 2, 2013 #

  30. Hello from a fellow independent retailer in Canada. Great article ladies!

    Comment by Angela Boschee — 1:26 pm July 5, 2013 #

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