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Deb Weinstein/MEDILL

 


Old Town stationer fights recession with civility, wit and beauty

by Deb Weinstein
March 12, 2009


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 Deb Weinstein/ MEDILL

Greer, a stationery store in Chicago's Old Town attracts customers from around town and coast to coast.

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 Deb Weinstein/ MEDILL

Chandra Greer, owner of Greer, created this chain-mail-like array of envelopes. She said it sums up the reasons people choose letters to express themselves.

Why Chandra Greer believes people should continue to write

 “So much of what we’ve been able to pass down in families has been in the form of letters,” she said, “and as people write more and more e-mails and fewer and fewer letters and notes . . . there’s going to be whole chunks of family history gone.”


Going forward by going backwards

Chandra Greer's jump from employee to entrepreneur wasn't a break but a correction, making up, in part, for early academic success that she says took her away from her primary interests.

“I wanted to be a writer . . . I wanted to be a designer,” she said, describing her childhood aspirations. “[I] had to find my way back to that as an adult on my own.”

“I got really good grades in school and really high test scores, “ she said, “and when I graduated from high school, and I think this is still the case in the African American community, if you are really bright and have really high grades you get kind of steered into law [or] medicine, instead of the creative fields.“


Welcoming customers with a blend of the whimsical (cowboy-patterned packing tape) and the practical (note cards), is Greer, a stationery store at 1657 N. Wells St., in Chicago’s Old Town.  Is this any way to fight a recession?

The shop, which has a quiet street side presence, has grabbed the attention of Chicago Magazine and Lucky in the three years it has been there, all the while racking up an Internet business that has grown, on average, 10 percent every year. 

Owner Chandra Greer, 51, has established a client radius that reaches from New York to Seattle. When those customers are here they make it a point to stop in and stock up.

Gold Coast resident Philip Herman, 30, has continued to shop at Greer even though he moved out of the Old Town neighborhood six months ago.

Herman, who said he usually doesn’t travel outside his neighborhood to shop, said Greer is different. “I do make an exception for Greer,” he said, “because I haven’t found any stationery store in Chicago that has the selection she has and the types of things she has.”  Greer is currently designing note cards for him. He confesses to an “emotional attachment” to the store. “She’s very much a part of this social movement to really promote civility, to promote thoughtfulness, and taking the time to send a handwritten note. It’s an idea and a lifestyle I buy into.”

“She has this remarkable ability," said Lake Forest resident Jennifer Karras during a phone interview, "to identify extremely high quality products that are unique.”  Karras, who discovered Greer when the store was in Winnetka, added, “Chandra is so much of her brand. I think it’s very inspirational, elegant and sophisticated. She’s extremely knowledgeable about what’s available, so if it exists and it belongs in the Greer collection she carries it.”

The attention that proprietor Greer has garnered for her store has not been by happenstance. Employing MBA savvy (University of Chicago), a business analyst's precision (Amoco Oil, now BP) and her branding acumen (advertising agency Leo Burnett), Greer launched a public relations campaign to establish a brand and has not let up. Beginning with her first store in Glencoe in 1999, continuing with her second in Winnetka in 2002, and her latest in Old Town in 2006, Greer has worked to cultivate an image that makes the store feel substantial, rather than like a one-off independent.

For Greer, that means when customers mistake her store for part of a chain, she's doing everything right.

“I think it’s more reassuring to the customer if you look solid, substantial, if they can have a sense of pride in shopping with you, buying from you,” she said. That reassurance requires Greer to remain vigilant, drawing a sometimes fine line between items she loves and items that fit the store’s beauty, civility and wit proposition. It also means saying no to discounting, even in this economic climate.

One way Greer fends off discounting is by ramping up her unending quest to become more visible. She said she has “stepped up Google advertising about 200 percent,” and she’s constantly adding keywords to her store’s Web site so it ranks higher on searches. Traditional advertising is not part of her promotional scheme.

Greer is also focused on creating even more of her own products. Right now 3 percent of her store’s merchandise is made or designed in-house. Her goal is to raise that to 20 percent.

To this end, Greer created Valentine’s Day cards that she said “salute classic cheesy pick-up lines.” The cards, which took about eight hours to design, feature a flip-open matchbook that says “Open before striking” on the outside and have a line such as: “Are your legs tired? Because you’ve been running through my mind all night” on the inside. Greer said they sold well, and as of Feb. 26, only three remained.

Greer, who describes herself as an Army brat, grew up in states along both coasts as well as in the Midwest. She did not set out to be an entrepreneur.

In 1997 and 1998, after leaving Leo Burnett, Greer focused on creative outlets, culminating in a small supply of handmade cards that she tried to sell door-to-door and to stores.

“That was a really painful experience,” she said. Going door-to-door reinforced one of the reasons she walked away from her previous job: she wanted control of her work life. “Because I have to be in charge and don’t like to be humble,” she said, “I decided ‘I’m going to start my own store and sell whatever I want, including my stuff.’”

She added, laughing, “And that’s how I ended up in retail. I started my own store just so I wouldn’t have to go around and sell cards on the street.”

Her academic training and Burnett branding expertise dictated her plan:  know your brand, know your customer and know how to keep them aligned.

Her store’s layout and product selection reflect this. A fine balance of vintage and modern fixtures, refined and eclectic, the store’s look is grounded in the established but is not weighed down by it.

Cards from local stationer Snow & Graham are displayed in drawers of what look like abandoned library card catalogue cases. Travel books, journals, and calling cards that parody surrealist René Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” artwork (“This is not a card”) are arranged on stainless steel-edged tables. A mailbox with an item promoting “Moon Mail” is close by.

Furthering the branding: mantras posted on the wall behind the cash register. One sign, written on a chalkboard and positioned by a cardboard version of a hunter’s deer head trophy is the House of Greer motto: “We are optimistic because we are stupid (Latin translation: Stulti optima exspeciamus).” Nearby is a sign that reads “Civility is not a weakness,” a phrase Greer adopted from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech; she said it sums up the store’s point of view.

Flexibility is a big part of Greer’s business plan. When Greer opened her Glencoe store in 1999 the operation was focused largely on paper. When she opened her second store, in Winnetka, paper accounted for about 90 percent of her stock, and gifts 10 percent. At her Chicago store, which replaced both the others, the mix is 65 percent paper goods, 35 percent gifts.

Compared with the Winnetka shop, Greer said, her current location offers a broader array of merchandise and appeals to a wider audience. Greer said that in it is first year, 2006, sales at the Chicago store were 20 percent higher than those in Winnetka. One year later, in 2007, led by Internet sales, they jumped 10 percent, hovering around $300,000. Profits, due in part to the economic slowdown, were slim at $10,000, but Greer said the shop did not feel a true slowdown until this February.

Greer’s wholesale business, which currently consists primarily of her line of “Civilette” cards that are carried at national retailer Paper Source and at Greer, is a lesser portion of the overall operation, but one that, like the store and Web site, Greer said is drawing attention. The palm-sized cards say "Thank You" on one side. Greer drops them in tip jars and gives them to the coat check attendant at a gym that doesn’t permit tipping. They're next to registers at Paper Source stores across the country, and a representative said the chain sells between 15 and 70 units a week.

Greer’s current customer base is younger than the one that surrounded her Glencoe and Winnetka stores. And, she said, Old Town’s residents have more disposable income, in contrast to “house poor” suburbanites who are balancing house payments and high overhead.

Hipper and younger, however, do not mean nontraditional. Tucked among the skull-and-bones coasters, “I like your (fill in the blank)” cards and graphic-rich pieces by Hammerpress of Kansas City, Mo., are best sellers: simple stationery with quiet designs like a gold key across the top of a white note card, or quiet botanicals that look classic but modern.

On the Web, the draw of “functional” items is even stronger.

In addition to being young, Greer’s customer base is divided between “casual convenience” shoppers who “see a place where they can buy a card. If we were to move four blocks away,” Greer said, “we’d never see them again.”
Destination shoppers, the ones supporting what Greer described as a “declining category,” will follow her, she said.

Greer said she sees her business model as one that is sustainable and expandable. Plans for a new location in the landmark Tree Studios complex that spans North State and East Ontario streets are being finalized. If all the paperwork goes through, she will be moving to a storefront that has 10 percent to 15 percent more space and significantly more foot traffic. The move is possibly in part due to the depressed real estate market.

Still shimmering beyond this new location is Greer’s overarching goal, to establish locations in Los Angeles and New York. Greer wants to expand her concept and become the Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters of stationers.

Greer describes herself as an optimist.“I just keep going.”