Women’s work

What the co-locating trend among small local businesses says about women as leaders

Karen Woods moved The Sleep Shop into Morgan Tiar’s store, EcoReno.

Karen Woods moved The Sleep Shop into Morgan Tiar’s store, EcoReno.

Photo by Audrey Love

To enter into a conversation with Emily Reid and Valerie Curtis is to walk into infectious, goofy laughter, high energy and fast, overlapping talking. The two Rockabboo owners rarely work together—Curtis works two half-days at the store but also runs her restaurant, Blue Plate. But they often call each other to brainstorm ideas, vent about fussy customers, or coordinate schedules, say if someone has a doctor’s appointment or it’s the first day of school for one of their children.

“If something crappy or good happens, I used to tell [my boyfriend], Jeff, but he didn’t really get it,” says Reid. “Maybe that’s just something you have with your partner, but that release is nice.”

Like Reid and Curtis, a number of local, independent businesses have moved in together, or “co-located,” within the past year.

For starters, there’s the custom invitation shop Pink Pearl Paperie (formerly Name Droppers), which now shares 100 square feet of Tessa Snider’s used vintage store The Nest, where an open door connects them to the Red Chair boutique. Then there’s music store Discology, which moved from California Avenue and into the Truckee River Gallery about a year ago. Children’s clothing store Babboo left its Cal Ave bungalow this spring and moved into the children’s store Rockabye, becoming Rockabboo in the process. Then, a few months ago, the ecofriendly mattress store The Sleep Shop left its rather sleepy corner on Vesta Street and moved into EcoReno, which sells all manner of green products at its South Virginia Street storefront.

While their decision to co-locate now seems like a no-brainer to these business owners, the idea has become a mold-breaker for businesses looking to thrive despite an uncertain economy. But a couple of things stand out about the local trend: One is that most of these businesses are small, niche boutiques. The other is that, with the exception of Discology and Truckee River Gallery, which are respectively owned by David Calkins and Mark Hammon, these shops are owned and run by women.

Is there something about women that leads to this kind of a business collaboration? What, if anything, does it indicate about how women lead? Or perhaps it’s simply coincidental, a default anomaly, given that many people who own niche boutiques are women.

“I’d never looked at it along those lines,” says Calkins. “For me, this was more about natural fit. It could have been a female owning the gallery. It wasn’t about ‘women get along better, talk more.’ It was about, ‘What do we need to do to keep moving, stay alive, and hopefully bring attention to each other’s business?’”

So this line of questioning may be dismissed as sexism, but some studies suggest there might be something to it.

“Women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders,” concluded a 2005 study conducted by Calipers, a Princeton, N.J.-based management consulting firm, and Aurora, a London-based organization focused on professional advancement for women.

And participants in a 2008 Pew Research Center Survey gave women better ratings than men regarding most leadership traits: Women were viewed as more honest, intelligent, compassionate, outgoing and creative than men. Women also got higher marks for being able to work out compromises. They were viewed as equally hardworking and ambitious as men. On the negative side, they were ranked as less decisive and more manipulative than men.

We decided to ask the women business owners for their take.

Risky business

“Women are better communicators, bottom line,” says Karen Woods, owner of The Sleep Shop. “I believe that. I honestly don’t think women support each other very well on an emotional level, but in a business setting, we’re more open. A lot of men won’t share that. They don’t want to admit to struggles or challenges.”

That openness paid off for The Sleep Shop and EcoReno. Woods was looking to move her shop to a space that was less expensive, a better location and had better parking. Morgan Tiar knows many people in town, so Woods figured if anyone knew of an available space, it’d be Tiar.

“I was like, ‘You should move in—I have to talk to my husband—but you can totally move in,’” says Tiar, who owns EcoReno with husband Marc Tiar, but Morgan makes the day-to-day decisions.

The women instantly started making plans. Now the store is split in two. Upon entering, customers are in EcoReno territory, with shelves stocked with natural cleaning products, recycled toilet paper, nontoxic kids’ toys, and upcycled accessories. Toward the back are rows of mattresses and pillows, marking where The Sleep Shop begins.

“Marc is more hesitant,” says Morgan, who thinks women tend to be risk-takers. “I’m like, ‘Let’s just try it. What do we have to lose?’”

This sort of exchange—a spontaneous offer followed by a quick decision—was common among the other co-locating businesses.

Last fall, Curtis was thinking about her children’s clothing store Babboo and wondering, “How much longer can I do this?” She was social networking, doing more sales and special offers than before, and yet the store was still struggling. She called Rockabye owner Reid to suggest they share a space. At the time, Reid was dealing with an “astronomical” rent and was considering moving locations but was not looking forward to it.

Tessa Snider, left, shares 100 square feet of her boutique, The Nest, with Mia Quinn’s store Pink Pearl Paperie.

Photo by Audrey Love

“‘How am I going to move this store?’” Reid remembers thinking. “At first, I had such narrow thinking! Just ‘my rent’s too high, how do I deal with this?’ I wasn’t thinking out of the box, so it was good she called. By that point, I’d put so much money into my store. I cannot loan my store any more money. You put so much time and money into your business, you don’t want to close it. I’m sure it’s how people feel when they’re underwater on their house. I didn’t think past that. I just knew I was not going to work for my rent anymore.”

So, like someone underwater on their house, she got a roommate. Babboo moved in with Rockabye at the Plumgate Shopping Center four months after Curtis’ call.

“Our stores should have been like this to start out with,” says Curtis. Reid and Curtis share similar tastes, and while Rockabye carries upscale baby gear and furniture, Babboo offers bamboo, organic and hand-knitted children’s clothing.

“It’s just cohesive,” says Reid.

For Mia Quinn, rather than shut down, she moved Name Droppers from its more expensive McCarran Boulevard location to the inside of The Nest at Lakeridge Pointe Shopping Center, and renamed her shop Pink Pearl Paperie. She’d been with Name Droppers since 1984.

“At that time, we were the only deal in town,” says Quinn. “There was no Target, no Walmart, there weren’t superstores. … Now, the little guys have too much competition corporate-wise. [Co-locating] gives us a chance to do what we love, what we’re good at, but do it without the overhead that’s now an impossibility to maintain.”

Back at McCarran Boulevard, she kept trying to reinvent her store, “but with the economy, the overhead was too hard.”

One day, she was talking to her close friend Aaryn Walker, owner of Red Chair. “When I told her we were going to close, she said, ‘No, no, no! You can’t close! I need you to meet this little gal, Tessa Snider.’ Tessa and I hadn’t even met until we made the deal. Aaryn orchestrated the whole thing, and it just worked.”

“It wasn’t about, ‘Oh my gosh, these women are struggling, they’re going to come together,’” says Walker. She wanted to help out a friend but also create a better retail community within the Lakeridge Pointe Shopping Center—her dream is to recreate the feeling of Main Street. That’s also why she invited Snider to locate The Nest next to her store when the space became available.

“In our situation, we’re just trying to keep our shopping center viable,” says Walker. “It behooves my 7-year-old business to have that kind of traffic—it all comes back to the energy.”

Money matters

Co-locating has kept some businesses from closing, but it’s also helped enhance the business itself. After all, with less overhead, there’s more money for inventory. Co-locaters can also share advertising and general operation costs. Plus they don’t have to hire an extra employee, as they have a built in one with the other owners.

Curtis, for example, didn’t save much in rent with her move to Rockabboo because Rockabye’s 1,600 square feet of space was much bigger than Babboo’s former location, but she saves by not needing to hire an employee. And all the women interviewed agreed that they couldn’t ask for a better person to watch their store than another business owner who’s invested in the stores’ success.

The savings show in the increased inventory in most of the stores. To reach the cash register at Rockabboo, one first must wade through floor displays of children’s clothes mixed with cribs, stuffed animals, wooden toys and nursing covers. It didn’t used to be like this. Not long ago, Reid had to do some strategic placement to try to fill the large space at Rockabye. Now, the space not only has more in it because two stores became one, but both stores were also able to increase their inventory.

“We haven’t downsized; we’ve increased,” says Curtis. “I have ordered from lines I never have before because I saved on operating costs. … Because we’re able to save money on one side, we’re able to invest on the other.”

Tiar says that, even though she’s had to squeeze her products toward the front of the store to make way for Woods’ mattresses, she, too has more to sell than before.

Family affairs

Becoming a mother is what led some of the women to open businesses in the first place. Reid opened Rockabye after her daughter was born; she was disgusted by the gaudy, plastic offerings available at most kids’ stores and decided to create an alternative. Curtis opened Babboo after having her son, now 6-year-old Henry, and being dismayed at the dismal offerings for boys’ clothing. And in opening EcoReno, the Tiars are hoping to help make the world a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place for their children. They also liked the idea of setting their own hours, being their own bosses, and giving themselves flexibility if important family stuff arises.

“Like Aaryn is having a baby, and she’ll be bringing the baby to work sometimes,” says Quinn. “She couldn’t do that anywhere else. It’s creating the work place you want to be—you’re in control.”

But some find themselves practically living at their stores.

Emily Reid and Valerie Curtis joined their stores, Rockabye and Babboo, to create Rockabboo.

photo by Audrey Love

“I’d have guilt, like where I made 50 cents an hour and didn’t get to hang out with my kid,” says Reid, whose daughter is 3. While Reid still watches the store most days, taking time off is not the ordeal it once was. She recently even took her family to Disneyland.

“We can occasionally go to lunch now,” says Woods of The Sleep Shop. “We could never do that before.”

With EcoReno and The Sleep Shop, neither store was under immediate threat of closing, but they were both feeling economic and time constraints. Before the co-location, Woods had one part-time employee, while EcoReno had none. Woods and Morgan ran their shops full-time—no lunch breaks, no bank errands, no mental health days—with their husbands occasionally filling in.

“I was frustrated because the reason Marc and I did this was to educate the community and make change for our kids,” says Tiar, whose children are ages 3 and 6. “It’s hard to educate from behind a desk. We can’t afford to hire someone, and as much as I want to sell the product, I want to educate.”

While Morgan is still at EcoReno most days, she can now ask Woods to watch the store sometimes when she’s asked to talk to a high school or the Girl Scouts or speak at a recent women’s summit about the environment. “I’m not chained to a building,” she says. “Honestly, my sanity is so much better than it was.”

Morgan also has more time with her family. “Marc and I hadn’t had a day off together in two years,” she says. Now they have every Friday off together, while Woods watches the store. Before, they were caring for two kids, a house, a store, a cat, a dog and some chickens, with little time for any of it.

“It came down to a financial and energy strain,” says Morgan. “We were scraping by.” It was to the point where the Tiars were discussing whether it was worth it to have the store. Their lease was coming to an end, and they would soon have to make a decision. Then Woods came in with her problem that turned into a solution for everyone.

As for Woods, she has more days off with her husband, Dave, now. “Dave is thrilled,” she says. “I’m hoping he can retire and do honey-do stuff.” She also wants to get more involved with the community. Her agreement with the Tiars goes through October.

“We just wanted to get a feel for it—but I think it’s going to be a long-term thing,” she says with a knowing smile.

And while Tessa Snider was having a hectic week at The Nest recently, it would have been far worse without the support she gets from her co-locaters. She also owns Budget Furniture in Sparks. Snider has been looking for a reliable part-time employee for Budget, but with little luck. So lately, she’s had to work there nearly full-time while Quinn and Walker watch The Nest.

“If you have people there that can watch your store for you, you can go back and forth, and it gives you more freedom for all involved,” says Snider. “I don’t know what I would do without them. … If this situation was happening, and I had another store on my own, this would have been catastrophic. I would have had to close the store.”

Better together

Not all co-locations are likely to work.

“I could see it not being a pretty situation,” says Curtis. “But it’s worked. We’ve gone through the growing pains.”

“There’s a lot of trust that goes on there,” says Calkins. “You’re basically asking someone to manage your own business while you’re not there.”

Many interviewed for this story said, with somewhat surprised expressions, that they “actually get along.”

Quinn, Snider and Walker all mention how the emotional support and friendship among them has been a special benefit to their business decision.

“The biggest thing for me is just the camaraderie,” says Snider. “If I’m at Budget, I’m by myself, and people aren’t like ‘wouldn’t this be a good idea …’ It’s just the energy—it keeps things moving, it keeps spirits up. … Probably the reason it’s more women-run businesses doing that is, I feel, as women, we like to get together and talk and bounce ideas off each other, where men kind of do things on their own. I think we’re just more of social creatures.”

“Collaboration is the perfect word,” says Quinn. “It’s how women support each other on so many different levels—creative support, inspirational support, physical support—helping each other out when running one place for the day.”

And when tough times call for creative solutions?

“I think we’re more likely to have that conversation and find common ground to work together,” says Walker. “Women have been doing this for ages. That’s what we do—the husbands would go to work, and the women would be out in the field swapping corn for eggs. I think we’ve gotten back to that more. People are doing things more on a handshake now.”

A handshake, and maybe a sublease.