Thursday, October 18, 2012

Who's Behind Blue Elephant?

As some of you already know, I've started to give monthly Golden Moth Intuitive Card Readings (like tarot readings, but using my own deck of cards) at Blue Elephant in Richmond. This months readings will take place on Sunday, October 21st from 1-4 pm - coinciding with their weekend Sidewalk Sale which starts tomorrow! 

Blue Elephant is a fantastic boutique that sells vintage housewares and artwork by local artists, and I always feel inspired after I visit. I've gotten to know Patsy and Jessica, the owners, but thought it would be neat to interview them to find out a little more about the mysterious women behind Blue Elephant. Enjoy!

Here's Patsy on the left and Jessica on the right.

Hello Patsy and Jessica! Would you please tell us a little about yourselves?

J: I was raised in Northern Virginia, and came down to Richmond to attend VCU. I definitely wasn’t thrilled to move here at first, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else! I have a cute row house in Oregon Hill that I share with great roommates and one fat cat, I ride a scooter everywhere and refuse to get my driver’s license, and I love all the great local shops and restaurants. The amount of creative talent and friendly people make Richmond one of my favorite places. It’s a beautiful, but unpretentious, city.

P: I come from a military family, and moved around often while growing up. My mother (Jessica’s grandmother) is Japanese, so my father would take assignments in Japan so my mom could be close to her family. I’ve lived in Japan twice in my life, and been back for visits several times. Japan and all things Japanese hold a special place in my heart and soul.

I worked in Northern Virginia at a large telecom company for almost 20 years, while Jessica and her brother, John, were growing up. When I first started working in telecom, I had no idea that I would do so for so long. While working in a corporate environment has its good points, it certainly didn’t make me feel fulfilled in a creative sense.

How did you become interested in vintage items and what made you decide to open a shop?

J: My mother, Patsy, was the one who always wanted to try her hand at owning a store. When she decided it was time to give it a try, I talked her into opening in Richmond, because I thought a vintage housewares shop in Richmond would make a great fit. She was still working in Northern Virginia, so she asked me to help set up the store. And things kind of just went from there!

P: As time went by in my telecom job, I found myself thinking more and more about leaving my current life behind, and doing something totally different. So in 2010, I took a large part of my savings, and opened Blue Elephant.

Jessica is a huge part of why I opened the store in Richmond. She loved this city, and, in all my visits to it, I found that I loved it, too. As I was still working in NoVA in 2010 and 2011, I also needed someone in whom I could trust to be my business partner, and whom better than my own daughter? J

It’s hard to say how I became interested in vintage items, as it seems like I just always have. I like things that have a history to them, and I like wondering about who owned them before me. I like new things, too (well, some new things), but given a choice between a new couch and a cute vintage one, I will almost always choose vintage!

How do you acquire your items, and what sorts of things are you particularly on the lookout for?

J: We take things on consignment from people and we also source things from auctions, estate sales, etc. Generally speaking, we look for things that range from the 1940’s through the 1970’s or vintage inspired pieces. Small pieces of mid-century furniture are always popular. I’m forever searching for dressers, side tables, etc. Things that fit into small Fan apartments.

P: When I go shopping for the store, I just look for things that I like. End of statement! I think people sometimes think we’re experts or curators and know a lot about this period and that particular designer and whatnot, and, over the past couple of years, that certainly has become more of a true statement as we’ve learned a lot. Jessica especially spends a large part of her day researching items, and can generally give our customers a much more informed history of an item in our shop than me. But as for me, I just look for what pleases my eye and what strikes a chord inside me.

What are some interesting/non-traditional ways that customers use objects from your store?

J: just had a customer that bought a wooden crate and mounted it to the wall for a shelf. He also came back and bought a giant wooden spool to try and turn into a side table. We also sell vintage luggage and people do all sorts of things with them; tables, storage, pet beds.

P: We’ve had people buy mid-century china cabinets and sideboards to use as dressers, and people buy dressers to use as sideboards. I think non-traditional uses of furniture and accessories make a space interesting.

What is your favorite item currently in the store, and why?
J: My favorite piece of furniture is probably the gray mid-century sofa that we had reupholstered at u-fab. It has the greatest lines with wide arms and original brass tapered legs. I’m also a sucker for tiny animal figurines. I have a lot of bookcases at home and I like to add the animals in with the books. I tell my little sisters they come alive at night to have tiny animal book club meetings. 

P: I love the gray sofa, too, but just recently someone brought in this blue clay bowl with three blue clay heads inside. It’s odd, it’s whimsical, and for some reason, it just delights me. I think I’m going to buy it for myself and take it home! 

You two are the main owners of the shop, but other members of your family are also involved. Can you tell us how each of you helps in the running of the business and what it’s like to work with family?

J: My brother, John, is a senior Crafts and Materials major at VCU. He comes in frequently to do the windows for us. I assist him when we do them, as there’s usually a lot of work that goes into our window displays. John also will come and rearrange the store for us. He has a great eye for visual merchandising.

My mother’s husband, Ron, also helps us. Unfortunately for him, it’s usually the un fun part that he helps us with. Delivering furniture, helping us with the accounting. He’s a good sport about it, thankfully!

P: As Jessica said, John has a great eye for arranging a space. Have you ever watched that show on HGTV where a designer comes into someone’s apartment and rearranges all of their own furniture and makes it look like a thousand times better? Well, that’s John! I love when he comes to the store and rearranges everything!

I don’t think that without the support of my husband, Ron, I would have been brave enough to venture out and start Blue Elephant. It’s true that he does help with a lot of the un-fun things, like moving furniture and fixing things. But for the past two years, he also played a really important role as our bookkeeper, and helped us make sure all our accounts and taxes were in order. 

What is the best part of running your own business? The most difficult?

J: The best part? I like when I have someone buy something that I know they are excited about. Most everything in the store is something I would like, but I am not a hoarder. So it’s the next best thing, finding things for other people that make them happy!

The most difficult part for me is the stress of owning your own business. When things don’t work out, or something you are trying to do fails, you have no one but yourself to blame. I think people have a misconception that what I do is fun all the time. I love what I get to do for a living. But it is hard. There are a lot of responsibilities involved, and I put myself last.

P: One of the best parts for me is that I get to work with my kids. I like that we have a common goal, and I feel it has brought us closer. The relationship between parents and their adult children is a lot different than when they’re little. I really like where I am with them at this point in their lives. J

One of the most difficult is exactly what Jessica said. It sometimes seems that we sacrifice a lot to maintain the store.  It’s not a job that you work 9 to 5, and then forget about when you go home. It’s integral to us, and it’s really important to us to be fair to our consignors and our artists and crafters.

What has been your favorite experience with a customer?

J: Recently, we sold a beautiful blue mid-century sofa to a young couple that had just moved to Richmond. They were both very kind and I knew the wife had her heart set on the sofa. When her husband came in later after work to see it himself, I worked with him to get to a price we could both work with and had it delivered for free. It made my day when they sent a text telling us how thrilled they were with the sofa and thanked us again. When people appreciate the things we do, it makes everything worthwhile.

P: I have so many it’s hard to choose! Generally speaking, I just love when someone buys something that they’re super excited about, and that’s a good deal for both them and us.

How do you like your current location in the Fan?

J: We just recently moved from Strawberry Street to Robinson Street. The old location was smaller, and when the opportunity to be next to Halcyon Vintage Clothing opened up, I couldn’t say no. And so far, it’s worked out great! The space is larger and brighter, all the ladies next door at Halcyon are wonderful, and having Deep Groove a couple blocks down is awesome too! We’ve kind of made a little trifecta of vintage stores.

P: Ditto to that!

What kinds of items do you think will be popular this coming holiday season?

J: The things that I think make great gifts are vintage items like aprons, books, embroidered linens, and cute kitchen items. I also think work by local artists such as yourself make wonderful gifts. Small prints, paintings, or pottery by local artists are great one of a kind items that support the creative community within Richmond.

P: I think anyone who has someone they’re getting a gift for who appreciates something not mass-produced and that’s different and unique as well as thoughtful, will be able to find something special at Blue Elephant!

Anything else we should know?

J: I can’t think of anything else. Just, thanks!

P: You ask a lot of questions, Aijung! I’m tired now. ;) But thank you so much for taking the time to interview us!!

Thanks, ladies!

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