Meghan Paige (left) and Keneisha Malone (right) opened Terra Cotta in Memphis. (Photo: Courtesy Terra Cotta)
Waiting to launch a new store until after the pandemic might have been the better decision. But who could say when life would return to normal during “unprecedented times”? So in early October, even though COVID-19 was keeping many people at home, Meghan Paige and Keneisha Malone opened Terra Cotta in Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood. The shop sells plants along with products by area makers such as tea, soaps, candy, skin care and jewelry.
The coronavirus has upended the nation’s economy. Some businesses will go bankrupt and others will struggle to rebound. However, there are small shop owners who have been able to nimbly shift gears to survive, lay the foundation for a better future and even thrive amid the uncertainty. Many have embraced niche markets, like supporting female makers, sewing masks when supply was short, delivering to their neighbors or offering luxury gifts from a Black-owned business.
Paige and Malone both have full times jobs. Malone is an elementary school teacher and autism therapist. Paige is a mental health therapist. But they wanted to be financially independent, so they rented spaces to host pop-up shops for locally-made products. When the pandemic hit, those opportunities ended. They decided it was time to launch their own space. Plants would be their main product.
“Plants are therapeutic for both of us. And with the pandemic, that’s just a good way to share our gifts with other people,” Paige said.
Terra Cotta in Memphis sells plants and products from local makers. (Photo: Courtesy Terra Cotta)
The pair found it was easier during stay-at-home measures to generate buzz through social media.
“It’s crazy how fast the attention for this is compared to what we’ve tried to do before,” Malone said, reflecting on previous business efforts.
Terra Cotta features products from makers who are all women and most are women of color. As the Black Lives Matters movement grew in intensity through the spring and summer, Terra Cotta gained customers who wanted to support a Black-owned business. Paige and Malone are both Black and wanted to create a space to amplify the work of those creatives.
“People are becoming more aware of the help that Black businesses need to thrive,” Payne said. “It’s so important for everybody to make an intentional effort to support women and support Black businesses.”
Shifting focus to help others
“Then I heard that hospitals in other cities were calling for seamstresses to make fabric masks because there was such a shortage,” Baumgaertner said. “I was thinking, wow, we have the scale, we have the equipment.”
Baumgaertner launched a fundraiser to pay for material and the salaries of her seamstresses. They made more than 5,000 masks for a local hospital.
“We were not making a profit off the masks, but we were keeping the seamstresses employed,” she said.
Soon, though, she started getting requests for masks. With masks hard to find at the start of the pandemic, Baumgaertner shifted her team to making them full time.
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“Because we were such a small business, we were able to pivot so quickly to produce something that people really needed in the moment,” she said.
Sanni Baumgaertner’s shop Community in Athens, Ga., turns vintage clothes into contemporary pieces. (Courtesy Community) (Photo: Katy Warren)
Community has now reopened, although only four customers are allowed inside at a time. With the flood of mass-produced masks, Community’s hand-made ones can no longer compete. But Baumgaertner credits those early mask sales with helping her store through the pandemic.
“I think without the masks, I don’t know if we would actually be around anymore,” she said.
‘Rolling with the punches’
Kristen MacCarthy had thought for years about adding local delivery for her KA Artist Shop, also in Athens. When COVID-19 hit, she knew that she couldn’t wait any longer.
“It involved me saying, okay, I would love to do more research and figure out exactly how I want to go about this, but I just need to get it done,” MacCarthy said. “It involved me putting my perfectionist side away and just rolling with the punches.”
She also beefed up her website, adding not only the 6,000 products KA Artist Shop carries but also the local art from her gallery space.
Kristen MacCarthy owns KA Artist Shop in Athens, Ga. (Courtesy KA Artist Shop) (Photo: Matthew MacCarthy)
“There are certainly online galleries,” MacCarthy said, “but they never really had that local feel. We’re trying to be a local store operating online and really focus on the people nearest to us.”
MacCarthy said that overall her sales are down by half. When the pandemic ends, however, she hopes the new online and delivery business will lead to more revenue.
Growing during tough times
In Charleston, S.C., Estelle Colored Glass only launched last October, barely in time to ring up some holiday sales. Owner Stephanie Summerson Hall had hoped her colored-glass cake stands and stemware would find wholesale buyers at the big Inspired Home Show scheduled for last March in Chicago. Hall was inspired by treasures discovered on antiquing trips with her grandmother, Estelle. But the show was canceled due to the coronavirus.
As the nation started locking down, however, Estelle Colored Glass, saw online orders pick up.
“I think people had more time to be home and look around on Instagram and they were bored,” Hall said.
Stephanie Summerson Hall founded the Charleston, S.C., based company Estelle Colored Glass. (Courtesy of Estelle Colored Glass) (Photo: Catherine Hunt)
Next came a wave of press with mentions in major publications like Harper’s Bazaar, Southern Living and Bon Appetit.
“I was doing four interviews a day on the phone,” she said.
Estelle Colored Glass grew so much that Hall had to hire more employees at a time when so many businesses were laying off staff.
The company’s biggest sellers are its stemware, which come in pastel shades and are hand-blown in Poland. They’re the kind of glasses you bring out for company, which makes them an odd bestseller when COVID-19 has made entertaining unsafe. Hall, however, thinks people buy the glasses with hope for the future.
“You couldn’t make the graduation. You couldn’t make the wedding or visit the new home,” she imagines customers thinking. “But here’s a nice gift that we hope you enjoy. And when we get together again, we can have a toast together.”
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