This is an ongoing series about people doing wonderful, interesting, unusual things with their lives. Leslie wondered how two crafty sisters could turn their handiwork into profit. So she packed up her baby, walked through downtown Keyport, New Jersey, and sat with them in their shop to find out.
I love crafting. There is something in my blood that needs to make things, from sewing felt alphabet letters to knitting a dozen hats for fun. From time to time, I fantasize about what it would be like to own a little shop and sell the cute stuff I make. But once I add in all the logistics of owning a small business, the idea falls to the wayside. (Not to mention the fact that hand-knit items are not exactly the best way to make a profit.)
Last year, I happened upon a new store in my town that gave me a glimpse into what life running a small business would be like. I was curious to see what kind of crafts the owners loved, what their backgrounds were, and where they’re headed.
Mary Beth and Helen Graham, Toad Hollow
- Day job: Creating crafts, manning the store, wrangling Spike and Drucilla (their four-legged people-greeters)
- Social Media: Website Twitter Facebook
- Montclair, New Jersey, natives
- Former elementary school teacher (Mary Beth) and former CFO (Helen)
In the beginning…
Mary Beth was an elementary school teach for 12 years. Helen was an accountant and later chief financial officer for property management companies. At different times, they both faced lay-offs or career changes that led to going into business for themselves.
Their small business journey started by selling teaching supplies under the name “Hey Teach!” After a few years of doing that, they saw Jellycat stuffed animals and fell in love. (Their store’s mascot is a stuffed aardvark named Clive.) Slowly, they started selling more and more toys and stuffed animals. Finally, they opened a brick-and-mortar store in Red Bank, New Jersey, and stocked organic, fair-trade, unusual toys.
While selling toys for the imagination (i.e. no video games or electronics) is a lovely idea, they ran into trouble because at a certain age, kids want electronics and video games. “We ended up going to Toys ‘R’ Us to buy electronics for our nephew. So we knew we couldn’t compete with that kind of demand,” Mary Beth said.
They closed their shop for a while, rebranded, and opened up as Toad Hollow, a general gift store. But their location wasn’t a perfect fit. “Red Bank was turning into a food town, not a shopping town,” Mary Beth said. Eventually, they moved 20 minutes down the road to Keyport.
Crafts to sell
It was a learning process for Mary Beth and Helen to decide what to sell. Both of them are knitters, but only Mary Beth had done other crafting. At first, they sold paper crafts, cupcake toppers, wristlets, and pillows. At a craft show they stumbled upon a display that was almost exactly what they were selling and learned they needed to differentiate themselves. Now, they focus on small, local crafts or things they make themselves. Through trial and error, they’ve discovered that their knitting bags and custom pillows are popular. And they’ve learned what holidays lead to more sales: Around Valentine’s Day, they can sell a lot of gifts and decorations, but there isn’t much of a demand for St. Patrick’s Day.
Online vs Brick and Mortar
I was curious why they had a physical storefront; I imagined that most people who sell crafts work from home. Helen and Mary Beth did work from home in the beginning, but they decided having a brick-and-mortar location was better for their business. Sites like Etsy reach a larger audience, but toy companies and craft suppliers prefer the store space, and it gave the business a face. It also gave them the space to offer classes, clubs and get-togethers for their customers. “We can’t expect Keyport [residents] to buy from us everyday but we can offer other things to them,” Mary Beth said.
Toad Hollow has offered sewing classes, a knitting group, a book club, and has partnered with the library to put on a haunted house for children. They like the community that the store brings and think that Keyport is an artistic town. Customers give them ideas and opportunities. Through the Keyport Garden Club, they were asked to make a pillow for their Christmas display at Drumthwacket (the New Jersey governor’s house).
Making it work
It’s difficult managing what items will be popular and how to sell enough, consistently, to make ends meet. In the future, these sisters would like to do more business with wholesale, turning the store into more of a work-space with supplies and classes. Even now, they’ve offered space to their sewing patrons to work on pieces, and if you have a questions about crafts, Mary Beth and Helen are more than happy to help.
Onto the biggest obstacle that most small businesses face: Money. They both admit they miss regular paychecks every week, but they’ve learned to live simply. They consider their purchases more but are adamant that going back to working for someone else is not worth it. They also try to focus on making things with a good price point, like pillows. There is a good demand for them and they’re easy to customize.
It’s easy to see why Toad Hollow is doing well. Helen and Mary Beth are not only interested in selling their crafts but also invested in their community.
The Smart Domestic wishes them the best of luck and can’t wait to see what else they do in the future. And we love to support small and local businesses. If you’d like to see what these crafty sisters are up to, visit them in Keyport at 8 Main St. or online. Buy a gift or sign up for one of their classes! And if you’re in the middle of a project and would like to work on it with other crafters, come hang out Friday night from 6 p.m. at their shop.