The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0082

Bubble Wrap & Prayers

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The government may not consider comic book shops, indoor plant stores, and small boutiques “essential,” but these businesses are vital to the unique fabric of their neighborhoods and downtowns. Without foot traffic, they’re finding new ways to connect with customers and stay afloat, all while navigating supply chain disruptions and e-commerce logistics.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely. Remote work is especially challenging when stuff’s spread out across emails, file services, task managers, spreadsheets, chats and meetings. Things get lost, you don’t know where to look for stuff, and people put the right information in the wrong place.

[00:00:21] But when it’s all together in Basecamp, you’ll see where everything is, understand what everyone’s working on, and know exactly where to put the next thing everyone needs to know about.

[00:00:30] Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.

[00:00:34] [Phone ringing.]

Selene: [00:00:39] Shark.

Shaun: [00:00:39] Selene, how are you?

Selene: [00:00:42] I’m good. Can you hold on one second, I’m just ringing out a customer real quick.

Shaun: [00:00:45] Yeah, of course.

Selene: [00:00:46] Awesome, I’ll be right back.

Shaun: [00:00:48] Back in March when all this madness was just kicking off, I decided to check in on my local comic book shop. Selene Idell owns AlleyCat Comics along with her husband Nick, and yeah, she calls me Shark, a nicknamed bestowed upon me by their daughter Ripley, who couldn’t pronounce Shaun when she was little. I’ve been shopping at AlleyCat since it opened in my neighborhood in 2011.

Selene: [00:01:07] We also sell trade paperbacks, toys, statues, collectibles, magazines, board games, t-shirts, kind of like a pop culture shop.

Shaun: [00:01:17] Like most other comic book shops, a big part of AlleyCat’s business is running booths at comic book shows, and it was at one of these conventions in mid-March where Selene and Nick got a real sense that things were getting pretty bad.

Selene: [00:01:30] The real indicator was the last convention we did, which was in Quad Cities, Mighty Con, and it’s usually a pretty good convention and it was pretty quiet. And so when Nick came back from that and told me about it, I was like, okay. That means that I have to completely rethink how I’m going to run the shop.

[00:01:52] My initial idea was to, okay, I’m just going to create a store that has the brand-new stuff in it, and that’s what we’ll have online and then anything else, people can just call me up for and I’ll be the personal shopper. Well, we got an announcement from Diamond yesterday saying that they’re stopping distribution.

Shaun: [00:02:10] Diamond is the comic books distributor, correct?

Selene: [00:02:12] It is, yeah, the only one. So that means that I’m not going to be getting any more new product in. So now, I have to change my idea again. That’s the thing with all this, every single day, I have to change the way I’m attacking this issue.

[00:02:28] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:02:30] Hello, and welcome to Rework, a podcast about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:02:34] And I’m Wailin Wong. We’ve been doing stories about how small businesses are adapting to COVID-19. And today’s episode is about brick and mortar retailers that sell non-essential items. They’re not supermarkets or pharmacies, or hardware stores. These are the places in your town that sell comic books and scented candles and plant terrariums. They’re the kind of businesses that make your neighborhood unique. They donate to school fundraisers and they take time to know their customers.

[00:03:06] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Annie: [00:03:09] We purposely kept the store portion at the front small so we can have a constantly changing stock of different items because we know our customer base is, thankfully, they’re wonderful, they return week after week. So we always try to keep new and exciting things in there for them.

Wailin: [00:03:27] Annie Scholl is the owner of Hearth & Hammer General Store in Batavia, Illinois, a town about 40 miles outside of Chicago. The brand has its origins in a vintage store and a line of literary-themed candles that Annie still makes and distributes to bookstores and gift shops around the country.

[00:03:44] In October, 2019, when Hearth & Hammer opened its physical storefront, literally on Batavia’s Main Street, there was a line of customers waiting in the rain to shop.

Annie: [00:03:53] In the inside, the front portion is the general store where we have soaps and candles and books and playing cards and apothecary. We also have a penny candy section. And then the back area, we have a lounge where people can stay and write cards and we’ll mail it for them, for free. We also have an area where kids can play while their parents shop. And then in the very back, we have our candle studio. So we make all of our candles there on site.

[00:04:22] Walden Woods is our bestseller and it’s a cedar, fern, pine scent. Some people are like, it smells like Christmas to me, and other people are like, I’m so happy it’s available year-round.

Wailin: [00:04:33] Hearth & Hammer is usually open Friday through Monday. Annie uses the other days to make candles and take care of her daughter. She happened to be open on a rare Thursday just as Illinois was starting to shut down and it only took a weekend to decide what to do.

Annie: [00:04:47] We had people just coming in that were clearly coming just to buy things to be kind. It was not things that they needed. They were like, you know, I really need a candle. We’re like, oh, do you? It was really nice.

[00:05:00] We work with a local florist. She was like, are we still on for the flowers. And I’m like, yeah, I think everybody could use flowers. We got some bouquets and so many people came in. We sold out of the flowers in an hour and a half or something. And during all of this, on Thursday and Friday, we just started disinfecting after every single customer that came in the door. We were disinfecting anything that they touched, including soap samples. I was like, this might be overkill, but I cannot tell people that they can be safe in the store and then not follow through. So, we were disinfecting everything, washing my hands so much. It was insane.

[00:05:37] And then Sunday was kind of the day when I was like, I think this has to be our last day we’re open. We’re not going to tell people it’s the last day we’re open to the public because I don’t want a rush. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t encouraging people to leave their homes to come shop. I really believe that self-isolating and staying in our homes will flatten the curve, so it felt very against all the scientific data to tell people, come on and support us, and come in our store.

[00:06:06] And so on Monday, we just said, we’re closed to the public but our doors are wide open online. That’s kind of where we started. So we put ourselves in lockdown.

Wailin: [00:06:17] Without foot traffic, Annie did what a lot of retail store owners are doing, which is going online, offering local pick-up and delivery, shipping out orders. But as a brick and mortar shop, she didn’t have a website ready to go with photos of her inventory and everything an online customer would expect. So Annie started doing a personal shopping service. A time-consuming, but important, stop-gap measure.

Annie: [00:06:40] I just would have Instagram, Facebook live stories where I would invite people into the space and show them around and show them different things and answer their questions. You know, people would be like, oh, my anniversary is coming up, I need copper, wool-related goods. Can you show me what you have in the store? It’s nice because I’m learning customers’ names because on Facebook, it’s like, oh, that’s who you are. But it’s also been pretty crazy because it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of extra footwork. And so, while I spend maybe an hour or two answering people’s questions, helping them facilitate an order, then there’s another three to four hours on the other side of that pulling everything together, making invoices, packing everything up. So our goal for this weekend and through next week is to really try to get some kind of website stood up, because it’s a lot. My brain feels very tired. I have friends and family that are wonderful but they’re sending me text messages and I’m like, oh, my gosh, my brain might explode.

Wailin: [00:07:47] Before opening Hearth & Hammer, Annie had experienced running a vintage store on Etsy. She isn’t the only brick and mortar store returning to their roots, metaphorical or otherwise. Megan George Cain is the owner of The Zen Succulent in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Megan: [00:08:03] I was that student that had plants in my dorm room. After graduating, I thought to myself, okay, I’m in the nine-to-five job. I would love to do something as a side hustle, because that was in 2011-2012, where side hustles became a thing. I discovered Etsy and I thought, what is something that I know well and that I’m not seeing online or on this platform. And it was selling living greenery, but in a low-maintenance way. So, through terrariums. I put a terrarium up online. I did not know how to ship it. I did not know anything in regards to the actual logistics. All of a sudden, it started to catch on.

[00:08:44] It started off maybe selling an order a week. And that might be a $30 terrarium, to as we continued on Etsy for the next four years, having a stream of income that was in the six digits.

Wailin: [00:08:55] Megan and her mom did the Etsy shop together. Their success led to Megan writing a book about terrariums in 2015 and leaving her day job to run The Zen Succulent full-time. She opened a physical store in downtown Durham, then another one in Raleigh.

Megan: [00:09:11] We can do business in a 400 square-foot space and make a pretty good amount of income off of that. People go into Lowes, or those large box stores and they think, oh man, a garden store needs to be like that. In reality, what you might be interested in, and what my specific customer is interested in, you can have in a small location. Because we’re having specific plants that are low maintenance. We’re having specific greenery that you’ll do for table-top gardens. We don’t need the large hoses and the hammers and all of those other things to make your items beautiful.

Wailin: [00:09:50] In a lot of states, large hardware store chains with garden centers, like Lowes and Home Depot, are deemed essential businesses and allowed to stay open. The Zen Succulent had to close its two stores in April, but Megan’s able to keep working on site.

Megan: [00:10:04] We do have a living inventory that still has to be maintained. So, we’re able to go in, not only take care of the greenery but also to do a variety of different plant orders that we might have online. Since, again, we had everything already online, we just decided to refresh our website as soon as we saw the kind of things happening in the news. So we added a variety of different installations on our website. We added collaborations, like with our lovely Jordan Grace Owens. She created a variety of different pots for us that have the painted faces that we didn’t debut yet. And we decided to move up that timeline. So that allowed us to be able to package up those type of orders. Something specific that people can’t get anywhere other than us and to put it on that online platform.

[00:10:57] We also have another artwork installation for Claire Daniel who has created some lovely pieces for us. Again, all of these things that we have been doing were in the pipeline. We just decided to instead of have them sold in person, to make them available online. And that allowed us to not only have locals purchase, but people from all over. We’ve sent some up to New York. We also sent one out to Arizona. And these are large pots that I’m so glad that they all arrived safe and sound. It’s just a different way of doing business.

Wailin: [00:11:30] So is it just a ton of bubble wrap?

Megan: [00:11:32] Yes, oh my gosh. Tons of bubble wrap and a lot of prayers.

Wailin: [00:11:36] At Hearth & Hammer, Annie Scholl’s store, it’s also been a flurry of packing and shipping. She’s been putting together gift boxes that come with products like coffee, homemade soap, and her candles.

Annie: [00:11:47] We’re really fortunate because we’ve always focused on trying to get as many local goods in there as we can and also sourcing everything that we can from the United States. So a lot of our supply chains are unaffected and we have thankfully, because this is our slow season, we have a lot of candles in stock at the shop right now, because we know it’s not going to be slow forever, let’s just prepare.

[00:12:12] I am lucky enough to have a soap-maker here in Batavia that also has a lot of stock that I can be like, hey, can I get more soap? And then she just drops it off outside the shop, or I pick it up from her porch.

[00:12:25] I’ve been ordering books and kids activities from a publisher and they’re still shipping everything out. So, so far, so good. But yeah, I’m not sure. How it’ll all play out.

Wailin: [00:12:37] That’s one very big dilemma facing a lot of retailers right now, and maybe you’ve experienced this if you’ve done any online shopping in the last few weeks. There’s some products that are in short supply, either because demand has spiked or the companies making those things have reduced operations, or both. These are products like hand sanitizer and yeast, but also jigsaw puzzles and backyard trampolines, and the Nintendo Switch. This could potentially affect glass containers for the terrariums that Megan sells at The Zen Succulent.

[00:13:05] And you already heard Selene of AlleyCat comics say at the beginning of this episode that the only distributor of comic books in the US, a company called Diamond, has stopped shipping altogether.

[00:13:16] A step higher in the chain, some comic book publishers are trying to help out retailers but it still leaves Selene in a precarious position.

Selene: [00:13:23] There is a publisher called Mad Cave Studios, and they created a GoFundMe for comic book shops. So people can donate to that. Image, I believe, has made it so that all of the books that are coming out currently that we would have gotten in today, and then anything going forward for a little while are returnable. Marvel made their discount tier larger so if you were getting 25% on your orders, now you’re getting a 65% discount on your orders. Now the thing is, this was all announced before Diamond decided we’re not shipping any more books.

[00:14:09] But honestly, I’m a little relieved that I’m not getting my order in because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to afford to get my next shipment. And I have an entire store of product so there is lots of things. People don’t always have to read the newest thing coming out. There’s always something they haven’t read. I’m going to still have business because people still need to be entertained, and I’m glad to entertain them, because I want to stop them from rioting in the streets.

Wailin: [00:14:37] So, maybe comic books are essential. It’s also a weirdly great time for indoor plants. And if you ask me, it’s always an appropriate time for scented candles.

Megan: [00:14:48] Having where people are in their home and able to look and see what they might need and actually take time in their space and enjoy the environment that they are creating is a real blessing. That allows us to have, again, those online orders. That allows us to have people to buy gift certificates, ready to plan. And also that allows us to add more plant tips online and give suggestions through our blog on what plants that might be a fit for their indoor environment.

[00:15:14] We kind of started off small. Smaller expenses. Smaller bills. So, again, that allows us, and being able to pivot a little bit more easily. In this time that we’re in, we’re unfortunately, some of my neighbors aren’t able to make rent because of closed storefronts or closed restaurants or closed dance facilities. Because all of those spaces are larger, whereas ours are a smaller amount where we’re able to weather this storm right now.

[00:15:45] I’m the only full-time employee for my business and we had to furlough a few of our employees just for their safety and of course our customers’ safety right now, since we are closed. We’re able to keep on one employee in our Raleigh location to take care of everything.

[00:16:02] Luckily, we did apply for the PPP loan, and we received that loan, so I’m excited to get back to having our employees in the storefront doing other things to keep them in business at least for another eight weeks.

Annie: [00:16:19] My main goal is really just keeping the business, Hearth & Hammer General in Batavia, because I’ve heard the message loud and clear from our community that they would be so upset if we were gone and so I’m like, I’m going to try my hardest to make sure that we see it through. And as long as they’re there to also match our efforts, I really think we will be okay. The beauty of this whole thing, I think, is that people really have focused more locally. We’ve seen a lot of support to our local restaurants and coffee shops and businesses because people are taking the moment to look around and be like, if I do not support these places, now more than ever, when it’s all said and done, they might not exist anymore. We might lose a third of our downtown or whatever it is.

[00:17:15] So, if you’re financial situation isn’t changing and you still have money to continue spending it as you would, it is very helpful as people continue to do that, to just keep supporting the local businesses even if they can’t physically enter them. We really don’t have any control over this and because of that, I also become very prideful, and I’m like, my business is not going to fail over something I can’t control. If it’s going to fail, it’s going to be because I made a bad business decision and it’s my own fault. It’s not going to be because a virus came and shut down our town.

[00:17:52] So what I said to everyone last night on our Instagram, was just, I’m going to fight like hell to keep it open and so many people messaged back and are like, us, too! So, it’s just, again, we have the best customers.

Selene: [00:18:08] Knowing that everybody is going through this sort of creates a sense of solidarity. I don’t have words. I have no idea how I’m ever going to repay all the customers. Every day, I’m like, oh my god. I’m going to start crying. And it’s not because I’m stressed out and I think that the shop’s going to fail. I’m not even thinking about that. That’s not even letting that into my brain. But it’s the love and the camaraderie that I’m feeling from all of the people in the neighborhood and customer. I just, it’s breathtaking.

[00:18:44] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:18:47] How are you and the family holding up, personally?

Selene: [00:18:51] We’re doing good. I’m here at the shop every day. Nick is my house husband right now because he has asthma, so I have to keep him as far away from people as possible. But he still comes into the shop and does the things he used to do. Ripley is doing really great. She’s creating lots of TikTok videos. I just recently found out what that was. She plays Minecraft and Overwatch so she talks to a lot of her friends that way, and Nick and her play Overwatch together. They team up and destroy people. We just play games when I get home and we’re going to make chocolate chip cookies tonight. So we’re just having fun.

Shaun: [00:19:26] Oh, is there anything in my box from my pull list?

Selene: [00:19:29] Yeah, actually, I think a new Sex Criminals came out.

Shaun: [00:19:32] Perfect, well that’s definitely going on the air. That Shaun reads Sex Criminals. Well, while I have you on the phone, let me just read you a credit card number.

Wailin: [00:19:42] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. You want to read your credit card number on the air so we can all go out and support our local businesses?

Shaun: [00:19:49] I’m not sure that would get you as far as you want, so I’m not going to read my credit card number. But you can support AlleyCat by shopping their online store at AlleyCatComics.com. And they’re also on Instagram at @AlleyCatComics.

Wailin: [00:20:02] Hearth & Hammer is at HearthandHammer.co and on Facebook and Instagram at @HearthandHammer.

[00:20:08] As we’re recording this episode, they’re on a short hiatus to catch up on the shipping and refresh their inventory and website, but they’re planning to reopen on May 13th.

[00:20:19] The Zen Succulent is at TheZenSucculent.com and on Facebook and Instagram at @TheZenSucculent.

[00:20:24] Megan George Cain’s book is called Modern Terrarium Studio. Call up your local independent bookstore and see if they have it in stock or can order it for you.

Shaun: [00:20:34] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one tool for working remotely. You may be wondering how you’ll quickly transition your team to remote work. People are stressed, work feels scattered, projects are slipping and it’s tough to see and manage everything. With Basecamp, everything will be organized in one place, your team will be working together even though they’re physically apart. You’ll be on top of things and a sense of calm will set in.

[00:20:56] Learn more at Basecamp.com.

[00:20:59] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:21:10] What is the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on while we’ve been cooped up indoors.

Shaun: [00:21:16] I almost bought that theremin.

Wailin: [00:21:21] Um, you should buy that theremin. Why? But then you could just stay at home and practice your theremin. You could get really good at it and then make spooky music.

Shaun: [00:21:28] We have a brand-new score for Rework. It is all vintage sci-fi.

Wailin: [00:21:33] That would be so cool.

Shaun: [00:21:35] [mimicking theremin] Woo-oooo-oooo.

Wailin: [00:21:36] You should expense it then, business expense.

Shaun: [00:21:37] I should expense it.