Saturday, May 14, 2005

Oh, the fun: buying yarn.

The funnest part (as well as the hardest part) of opening a yarn store is buying the yarn. There are soooo many choices!
Early on I decided to approach yarn buying as a business person first, a yarn addict second. Since startup funds are limited and I'm depending on the store to generate an income for myself, I need to be able to stock shelves quickly as things sell out. In other words, I need companies that can deliver yarn quickly, which rules out some wonderful companies. Rowan for example takes roughly 3-4 months to ship an order (if you're lucky). Some companies take even longer. At least in the beginning, I simply cannot run a business where inventory takes FOUR MONTHS to arrive! That means I basically need to have four months worth of inventory on the shelves at all times. That's a lotta balls o' yarn and requires a lotta cash (which I don't have).

Happily, the yarn world is pretty large and competitve, and many companies have established great track records for delivery. One of them is Cascade Yarns, out of Washington. Not only are they on the West Coast, yarn orders take only a few days (a week at most) to reach you. Their yarns are of very good quality and reasonably priced. One of their yarns is wildly popular... Cascade 220, which is a nice soft wool that has legendary felting properties (and it comes in three trimillion colors). Cascade also distributes other higher-end lines that caught my attention: Dive', a brand that has been around a long time, and Bollicini, a new 'luxury' label created by Cascade. The folks as Cascade are super-nice, and called me up personally to answer my initial questions. Most yarn companies referred me to local reps - more on that later. Due to their great delivery reputation and super-niceness, Cascade became my first supplier.

Another major company I've chosen to work with is Muench Yarns, located right in my backyard in Petaluma, CA (15 miles from my front door). Muench sells their own line of yarns a (which are primarily frilly, fluffy and glitzy novelty yarns) which to be quite honest, isn't my bag. I just don't get excited over the furry novelty yarns. What I *do* get excited about are soft, luxurious and colorful "basic" yarns - merino wool, alpaca, cashmere, cotton/wool blends, silk blends, etc. Muench distributes yarns made by GGH, a German company that produces a huge range of novelties AND basics. The color range offered by this company is wonderful, as well. I love color. Muench/GGH is my second major supplier.

The third company I'm investing a lot of money in is Goddess Yarns out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They are a newish company, very small, that offers a terrific selection of high-quality basic yarns in a great range of colors at extremely reasonable prices. Their slogan is 'Created for knitters by knitters.' I just finished a sweather made out of Ellen, their cotton & wool blend. Fabulous!

Two small 'luxury' fiber companies that are high on my list are Blue Sky Alpacas (specializing in, duh, alpaca and alpaca blends) and Lorna's Laces (IMHO the best hand-dyed company out there).

This brings me to a philosophy that's been crystallizing in my brain since this journey began. Rather than 'cherry pick' yarn - buying samplings of yarn from many, many different companies - I'm going with fewer high-quality companies and carrying a wide selection of yarns in a wide range of colors. You'll be hard-pressed to find a single yarn in my store in only 4 or 5 colors; more likely you'll see something like Pima Tencel from Cascade Yarns, a super-soft and silky cotton blend, stocked in 16 colors - all the colors they offer. The logic behind this is pretty sound: five colors of one yarn can't get noticed in a well-stocked yarn store. They just sit on the shelf all sad and lonely. 16 colors of one yarn, however, scream "ooh! look at me!" and also shows customers that the owner believes in and stands behind this particular yarn.

I also have some rather unique ideas for merchandising the store. I'll get to that later.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

1026 Court Street

The courtyard in which I hope my store will be... way in the back.

The commercial real estate company that handled the space on Fifth Avenue (which fell through due to zoning restrictions) also is representing the Court Street properties, so it was easy to shift my efforts to the Court Street space. Brian (the agent I'm working with) drafted up a LOI (Letter of Intent), outlining the basic terms I'm offering: rent, length of lease, free rent, and basic improvements to the space. In the world of commercial leasing, everything is negotiable. A typical commercial lease is 3-5 years, and depending on how many years, it's common to get one or more months of free rent at the beginning, to help you get started. I asked for a 3 year term and two month's free rent, which is pretty standard. They also agreed to a standard build-out: finishing off the space so it can be used. The space is raw - bare concrete floor, bare wall studs, no ceiling. A minimal build-out includes sheetrock, drop ceiling, standard light fixtures, HVAC, and electricity.

Lo and behold, they accepted my initial terms, with one exception - they countered with a slightly higher rent than I asked for. I was expecting this. It all sounded good. One detail remained: there's no store room, it's one big rectangle of a space.

I came up with the idea of a moveable wall... a 7-foot high partition built so that it could be moved easily. The space is pretty huge and I don't have the funds to fill it up with inventory. With a moveable wall, I can make the selling space fit the inventory, and as my inventory grows I can reconfigure the space. At first the agent told me they would do it and roll the cost into the lease payments. In the end, however, the landlord said 'no', I'd have to pay separately for it. Sigh.

After going back and forth a bit, they sent me a draft of the lease. It was a book - a half-inch thick! Aack. I hired a lawyer to go through the lease and make sure it was all kosher. The guy I used was recommended by the real estate agency - he's a tenant in the same building and has helped negotiate four other leases in the building. He went through it quickly and came up with a variety of changes and deletions. Most of these changes the landlord agreed to. In the end it was all good.

I am ready to sign this sucker and get the show on the road! Too much talk and not enough action!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Tale of Two Spaces

By far the most challenging task in opening a yarn store is finding a suitable space: one that is affordable, in a good location, and obviously, available.

From day one I wanted to locate my yarn shop in downtown San Rafael, which is a vibrant, thriving area filled with offices, restaurants and shops. It's only five miles from my home (gee, what a treat that will be, compared to driving 50 miles round trip to San Francisco every day as I've done for 2.5 years). The area has a diverse, funky feel that I like.

Early in my research phase, I began investigating the costs of renting a storefront. My first discovery was a wonderful space right in the heart of downtown, where all the action is. Brand-new building, large space, and oh yes, quite expensive. No thanks. My second discovery was much better: a spot on Fifth Avenue, which is one block from the main drag, Fourth Street. The prevalent line of thought is that you don't need to locate a yarn shop in a prime retail location because you don't need the foot traffic and high-visibility; yarn addicts - I mean knitters -find out where you are regardless of your location. Yarn shops are considered destination-type business. They don't rely on foot traffic. Therefore, this space on Fifth Avenue seemed perfect: one block off the main drag and it was VERY inexpensive. It's part of a bank building that the current tenants do not want to use - it used to be a walk-in ATM room. It was about 550 square feet with very high ceilings and tall windows. The disadvantage: very small and no room to grow. Oh, there was another disadvantage: the city won't allow retail in that location.

Doh!! Then why advertise it as 'office/retail space for lease'?? No one ever checked with the city until I came along. When I called the city to find out about a business license, I was informed that retail businesses are not allowed on that street. Ugh, back to the drawing board.

Fortunately things were working in my favor, because in the meantime, the owners of the first space on Fourth Street lowered their rents dramatically in order to get the vacant spaces filled. The building was built in 2002 as part of a revitalization project for San Rafael, and probably due to high rents, several of the spaces remain vacant to this day. Four space are vacant, one of which located at the back of a large courtyard. The location is great and the rent is low for that type of space. I had a hard time decided to go for it because the cost just barely fit in my budget. I felt that the foot traffic and exposure justified the greater expense, so I went for it. More to come...