Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Slate celebrates anniversary, describes trials

Debbie Hartnett opened Slate Interiors, a multi-merchant home furnishing and art store, a little more than a year ago on Central Avenue. She's contended with a slumping economy on top of the usual first-year business hiccups, and recently celebrated her store's anniversary.

 "It was a daunting task when we first started, and we kept being reminded of that," said Hartnett, talking about the drumbeat of dreary economic news since the store's opening last November.

To compete, Hartnett has turned every available square foot of wall and floor space into selling opportunities for the more than 70 artists and merchants whose work is featured in Slate. And she means every square foot: Hartnett added a rack for pillows on one of the few empty walls, hangs art and chandeliers for sale in her office, and even has merchandise for sale in the restrooms.

She also works every conceivable angle to get people into the store, drawing on everything from social media to her prior experiences working at her family's old store in South Carolina. "Between special events and gallery crawls, we do one to two events a week," she said, including wine and cheese tastings and book clubs - all things the shop has to stay open past normal hours for.

A gallery crawl, which they do every month, involves at least a 13-14 hour day, Hartnett said. But such sacrifices are necessary to give the new shop a fighting chance, she said. "Average is not going to cut it in this economy," said Hartnett. "In this economy, you can't do just one thing. It has to be multifaceted."

The third strategy that helped her get through the first year is an aggressive focus on pricing items competitively, said Hartnett. She tries to target a lot of the goods to people in their 20s and 30s.

"They're the ones buying the $350,000 houses," she said. "The million dollar homes aren't moving." Many of the paintings, vintage accessories, wine glasses, pieces of jewelry, and pieces of furniture sell from prices ranging from $10 to a few hundred dollars.

Commercial real estate developer John Rudolph bought the building at 1401 Central Avenue in 2007, at the height of the property boom and a "terrible" time to make a big purchase. He worked to jazz up the building, which began its life decades ago as a Carriker furniture showroom.

Former tenant White Rabbit moved a few blocks down Central, and Slate and Midwood Smokehouse (owned by the same restaurant group as Bad Daddy's Burger Bar, Cantina 1511 and others) moved in. Rudolph also reopened the building's upper floors, which had been storage space, as about 9,000 square feet of office space.

"When we started this, there was a concern that this area was not known as a retail location," Rudolph said. But he points to the surrounding area - several new stores and restaurants such as Fern have opened - and says the experiment has worked out pretty well so far.