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Don't Stop Believing

There was a point in my life where the only time those words signified anything to me was when they were blaring over the speaker system on a Monday night in some overcrowded, sweaty bar. Yes, Journey may hold a special place in my heart as the anthem of all good party endings but those three words have taken on a visceral meaning in my life since opening our doors one month ago.

There is a reason people lay awake at night debating the dollars and sense of pursuing a dream. It takes time and endless amounts of energy, creativity and drive to walk into every day knowing you are the master of your universe. You are responsible for the failures. You are also the owner of your successes. Every seed you sow has the opportunity to flourish or wither under your watchful eye. That is some heavy stuff. That is the kind of stress that will keep you wide eyed and anxiety ridden at 3 am. At least, that is what I thought.

In the research phase of this great adventure I covered all the bases. Statistical analysis on traffic flow. Industry formulas regarding foot traffic and sales conversion rates. Sales per square foot. Return on investment from trade shows. Financial projections calculated on advertising investments and social media exposure. I don't have a college degree. I am not a graduate of business administration. Hell, I don't enjoy math and sure as heck am not an accountant, graphic designer or brand marketing major. In fact, the only time I have ever worked in retail was a brief and costly stint at a Melanie Lynn 10 years ago. Apparently I liked buying Calvin Klein gowns more than I like selling them. So after all of my endless internet searches and hours of self education what made me think I was ready to operate my own wedding boutique that not only relied on consumers but was supplied by consumers?

Consignment is the retail double-edged sword. You are essentially a broker of items, connecting the buy and seller while balancing the operating costs and pay outs of the the consignors. This added layer of financial responsibility has tremendous opportunity due to its low overhead cost. It also carries substantial risks because you are effectively paying a higher price per unit than typical retail.

I decided very early on that my number one priority would be to streamline my start up costs and capitalize on the 20 years of customer service experience I had acquired. Apply the mortar and lay down the bricks. The foundation of any business is its service. You exist to provide that service and it is your responsibility to commit to that service wholeheartedly and with sincerity and professionalism. All of my previous jobs had been in hospitality where I had been groomed to see the room from a patrons eye level. I had been molded to treat the exterior of a building like an extension of the table the ate upon. It had been ingrained in me that my ultimate goal was to be the architect of an invisible puppet show in which every staff member collaborated to bestow upon our guest the perfect dining experience. Every time. These skills are entirely transferable and I would not trade those years and long, thankless hours for the hands on knowledge I have for running a business today. Restaurants taught me to balance sales, forecast revenue, analyze labour costs and most importantly develop a laser focus on detail and value perception.

Emboldened with all that research and a doctorate in practical application of business principles I laid out my plans for designing and launching a boutique for $10, 000. Yes, you read that correctly. No loans. No investors. Just us, our savings and a voracious appetite for vintage and repurposed treasures. Armed with a spreadsheet, my Kijiji app and our Dodge Ram pick up we sought out our fixtures, furniture and equipment from everywhere and anywhere. Beautiful, tufted pink vintage furniture from a garage. Garment racks rescued from a dusty warehouse on Archibald. Chalk painted dining pieces that serve as a cash wrap. Computer equipment sold from a bankrupt health chain. Antique metal picture frames that still had pictures of 60's folk singers in them. Basically, everything reminded me of my Nona's condo. Nostalgic. Warm. Classy and comfortable. Timeless.

Eventually my basement started to look like an episode of hoarders and at one point I pondered whether or not the execution of the design might end up lost in translation. A guiding principal of Pearl and Birch was to demonstrate sustainability in our operations as well as our inventory. The concept that something could be reimagined, revisited and rediscovered for its original beauty has always been the driving force in our wedding consignment shop. Why relegate these items to a life in a closet or garage or basement when they were destined to create something new?

It was extraordinarily harder to source everything in this way. Most businesses click a few buttons, enter in a credit card and rejoice when the boxes start rolling in from the infinite selection of the webiverse. We invested in a printer, our garment bags and some lovely white hangers but even our wooden hangers came from the now long forgotten American Apparel on Osborne. Fortunately we also had some amazing gifts bestowed upon us in the form of glass jewelry display cases, labour from my father-in-law who built us shelving, sweat equity from our village- the heart and soul of our family, friends who do anything and everything for us all in the hopes of watching us succeed and finding joy in what we do- and furniture from several sources all in an effort to help me achieve my vision.

When I first began looking at business models I was inundated with articles called, "How to Open a Thrift Store in 7 Easy Steps," and, "How to Open a (wildly successful) Consignment Shop, " by consignment trailblazer Auntie Kate of Too Good to be Threw. The latter was particularly helpful because her shoestring budget and build-from-the-ground-up experience (which seems to be something of a entrepreneurial unicorn these days) inspired me to chase madly after my dream with reckless abandon. Although when Auntie Kate started it was 1975 and the internet wasn't selling Maggie Sottero replicas for $234.00 plus shipping. I digress. I am fortunate enough to have been born with this wildly unreasonable self confidence and fearlessness that propels me into situations that most people would never entertain. In my youth this was a catastrophic gift but as an adult it is my key to the kingdom.

I fully believed I could open the boutique on this budget and not sacrifice the traditional experience brides deserve when purchasing their gown. And I did. I am so proud of what we have created at 539 St. Mary's Road. I also foolishly believe I can move forward in this business without taking a loan, acquiring debt or borrowing money. This remains to be seen as we have only just begun. I refused to take no for an answer. If I don't understand something I learn it. If a client requests a service outside my expertise I outsource and provide it. If I encounter a gap in our operations I address it. Every single challenge I come across is an opportunity to turn up the music and keep the party going. I won't stop believing. And neither should you.

I had a vision. That I could start this business with passion, Pinterest and a whole lot of perspiration. I lay awake at night thinking of new ways to reinvent the wedding industry. I lay awake dreaming of all the gowns I can rescue from a lifetime in box. I lay awake hoping I can pay my rent. But mostly I lay awake thinking about how far we came in just 4 short months and how far we can go in 4 more. I hold onto that feeling.

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