To kick off our series this Independents Week, we chat with Amy Rutherford, founder of Red Barn Mercantile, who explains how getting fired changed her life…
When did you open?
We opened Red Barn Mercantile September 1, 2007.
What made you start your own business?
Like how a lot of opportunities start, I got fired from a job. I won’t go into details but let’s just say the firing was only mildly justified. After that I spent 8 months soul searching – and searching for a new job – as I walked along the GW Parkway every morning. Based on all the things I had enjoyed from previous positions and from my childhood as an Air Force brat, a home furnishings retail store was the perfect fit.
What had you done previously?
I was in non-profit marketing and fundraising. It was extremely rewarding.
How did you prepare to make the switch?
I had my son, which lead me to leave my job to be a stay-at-home-mom. While I enjoyed our time together, I really needed something to keep me engaged so I can be engaged with my son. Looking for flexibility, I thought opening a store would allow me to be with my children and work. Now, I won’t say I was wrong, but I will say I wasn’t exactly right. Market and holidays at the store kept me busy and away, but the flexibility that being your own boss gives allowed me to coop in their pre-school, go on 90% of their field trips (Jamestown twice for the win!), volunteer in the classroom, and attend school concerts and most baseball games.
What is your favorite part about owning your business?
There are two things that I love about owning my business: the relationships I’ve built and the strategy of buying. From customers to staff to fellow business owners, I have met and built friendships with so many wonderful people from all over the country – literally. I truly count myself among the fortunate. As for strategy, I love the challenge. From the outside going to market looks glamorous and oh-so-much-fun. And, it can be. However, it is also grueling and painstaking. We have to sift through seemingly endless aisles and buildings worth of goods and try to pick the things we think you will like. Not only do we have to choose correctly, we have to choose the right amount. It’s like a big logic puzzle and to me that is challenging and oh so much fun!
What was the most surprising/difficult thing you’ve learned?
Our current location is our second location. When we opened in 2007 we were on South Columbus Street. I was sure that my years of marketing experience and general good taste (IMHO) would be enough to make it a success. What was so surprising was how un-successful we were. The Great Recession didn’t help, but I thought if I built it people would come. Not enough people came and that was a rude awakening. So in 2012 I was faced with a decision. Close or move, and if I was going to move, where should I go. I am so grateful to Joe Eggerton for making me the offer of a lifetime. He wanted to retire, but still had time on his lease, so he proposed that I take over his Arts Afire space. It was a uniquely generous offer from a truly wonderful man. I will always be in his debt for moving onto King Street was the saving grace we needed. Now my business is thriving (knock on wood!) and we are finally enjoying the fruits of all our hard work. Thanks, Joe!!
Tell us about a local independent business you love and why?
I love me some Shoe Hive and The Hive, but my favorite store in Old Town is Hooray for Books! Every town in America should have a local bookstore for a bookstore is a part of the fabric that makes a community whole. Hooray for Books is no exception to that rule. What they do for the public schools is unparalleled by any corporate business in town. Book fairs, hosting authors in schools, working with charities like Wright to Read and Alexandria Bookshelf are just a few examples of the many roles they play in Alexandria. But the biggest role they played for us is in my children’s love of reading. For every holiday, every reading project, every time they end a book series, we stop in and ask the ridiculously knowledgeable staff for recommendations and rarely, if ever, have they disappointed us. I think the world of this little store and am so grateful for Ellen and her amazing staff.
What changes have you seen since you’ve been in business?
In September we will have been open for a decade and in that decade I have seen some really amazing changes to Old Town. What I appreciate most is the caliber of stores that have opened in the west end of Old Town. Places like Olio, Stitch Sew Shop, fibre space, Victoria at Home, and coming soon, Conte’s Bike Shop, have made ALL of King Street a vibrant shopping destination and I think we ALL benefit.
What are you most excited about right now?
I’m most excited about opening a new store. More on that to come.
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
Being able to think of something completely crazy and making it come to life. Taking a seed of an idea and watching it grow will never ever get old.