To open a small business off the beaten path sounds gutsy. To limit 95 percent of your product line to arts and crafts made by people in one of the least populous states sounds pretty risky. To collaborate with your competitors so you don’t step on anyone’s toes sounds kind of far-fetched. But to quit a good job and open such a boutique at the height of a recession?
Well, that just sounds like some idealist’s personal challenge to the established order.
And it’s what Becky Schreiner is doing with her Reeder’s Alley boutique, Frayed Sew.
Frayed Sew sells handmade goods, mostly from Montana-based artists, and includes everything from clothes to stuffed animals to framed photography to jewelry. But that hardly explains what you find. Sure, there are wallets, but Schreiner’s store has some wallets made from cloth, others made from recycled plastic bags and yet others stitched together from old bike-tire tubes. There are wall hangings made of old signs and bird houses sided with license plates.
The story of Frayed Sew is one of steady but controlled growth. Schreiner had a good job in environmental science but decided to quit when she got a better sewing machine. She began peddling hand-crafted bags and baby clothes at the local farmer’s market a few years back, then started sending her work out to various boutiques. She befriended other Montana boutique owners — such as Anna Visscher, of Bozeman’s Tart — and realized that there might be a market for such a thing in Helena.
She opened the boutique in a tiny closet of a retail space about three years ago, right at the height of the recession. A key feature of her plan was that the Frayed Sew never go into debt, which it hasn’t.
“Except maybe to myself,” she adds with a grin.
Schreiner is realistic. She knows, for instance, that she doesn’t have much in the way of direct competition in Helena, but that there is a booming online trade of handmade goods. She is also very aware that she competes against the bottom-dollar mentality that national chain stores engender, not to mention the skewed price perceptions created by mass production and consumption.
“A big thing is with all the box stores selling things for nothing,” she says. “It would be nice for people to understand the costs of things like fabric. But I think more and more people are realizing that it’s nice to get one quality item instead of a bunch of worse quality. I know I want my products to stand the test of time and, if they don’t, I want you to bring it back so I can fix it.”
Frayed Sew’s growth has been slow but steady. In three years, it has moved twice to bigger spaces, all within Reeder’s Alley. In that time, it has expanded enough that Schreiner can employ a couple of people part-time. She also has a fairly steady stream of new artists approaching her as opposed to having to always seek them out. Today, the store boasts almost 60 Montana artists, which creates a new dilemma: Schreiner doesn’t relish having to turn down quality products made by sincere artists.
“It’s hard,” she says, “especially if it’s something similar to what I make.”
Helena is a small town and Schreiner doesn’t want to compete with other merchants who may sell work by the same artists as her. For instance, she sells a particular t-shirt that is also sold downtown at fourOsix. She tries to avoid such overlaps by talking to artists, but in such a case she will tell customers who can’t find their size in her shop that they should try fourOsix.
“It helps everyone out if everyone just works together.”
The business model here is very non-traditional, but it seems to be working. When I visited during what Schreiner predicted would be a slow part of the day, our conversation was interrupted several times. When I left, the store was full of women picking up items, studying them, asking questions about materials and about the artists.
Schreiner takes her business’s slow times and successes all in stride. She isn’t pushy about making sales, but makes herself readily available to customers with questions. She has a very calm demeanor and is very contemplative about work and, to a greater degree, life.
“I went from a job that paid pretty well to a job that maybe pays me, but it’s all about the quality of life. I’m happier when it’s less stressful.”
Sure, there are times when she can become a little frayed around the edges, but she says the stress is now something she imposes on herself and she thinks that makes all the difference in the world.
“The busier we are, the less attention we pay to things in life,” she explains. “I’ll take the slower pace.”