“It should be fun.”
That’s what we always said when we talked about opening a store together. For years, we shared this pipe dream of one day creating a space where all these weird and wonderful items we’d picked up from our travels would find a (temporary) home. Four years ago, after nearly a decade of talking about it, we finally pulled the trigger and opened Calliope, an interiors store tucked away on a tree-lined and cobblestoned street in New York City’s West Village.
“It should be fun” was the shop’s tagline and served as a constant reminder of why we were doing this in the first place.
When the store first opened, Caroline and I were ecstatic. Our small shop was full of items we’d shipped back from trips to far-flung places, pieces wrapped in newspaper and lugged through customs, weird objects unearthed from antiques auctions in unglamorous corners of America, and a carefully curated collection of new items sourced from a handful of designers making products with the same integrity and sense of providence as the antiques they stood beside.
It was perfect.
We called it Calliope — named in part for the Greek muse that was known to Ovid as the “Chief of all Muses.” We thought it was fitting, as every item in the shop was inspiring to us, and we hoped others would find inspiration there, too. For us, this wasn’t just a project. It was the byproduct of years of talking about doing a project together that combined our shared passion for design and travel to create a space that brought interesting things from around the world to people who would appreciate them.
The first few months were electrifying. Friends from all over came to see the latest treasures we’d brought into our little objet d’art emporium. We’d met locals and tourists who happened by, lured in by the smell of burning incense and the melody of David Byrne records. Magazines and blogs wrote features on this strange little shop and the husband and wife who ran it.
Caroline and I always maintained our other jobs while running the store. Caroline is an artist and jeweller, and I’m the founder of a design consultancy and an alternative-medicine practitioner. Needless to say, we know how to keep ourselves quite busy.
Soon our staff, led by our shop manager, Rosie, became an extension of our family, and along with our weird dog, Darryl, we became a fixture in the neighbourhood. We were often stopped on the street and asked, “Are you that couple who own that shop?” or “Isn’t this that dog from the store?” And while 50% of the people who asked about the store mispronounced Calliope, it was still fun to have an opener to chat with someone who would have otherwise walked right past.
In New York City, everyone feels very busy and very important, and it’s tough to find a moment in our very full lives to make the time to slow down and connect with others. But our store gave us this gift. Sometimes people would just come in to play a record or flip through vintage magazines. We knew not everyone was there to buy a daybed or a new rug, but it didn’t matter. We’d made a little urban oasis, and it felt good to create that space for strangers who could become friends.
Time went on and the store’s momentum slowed a bit. The news about the “retail apocalypse” was everywhere, and was painfully apparent when we walked Darryl down Bleecker Street. We’d see vacancy sign after vacancy sign as retailers shuttered in the wake of the trend toward online shopping. Even our larger, more established neighbours like RRL and Marc Jacobs closed their boutiques. It seemed like it was only getting harder and harder for independent businesses like ours to stay afloat.
We never intended for the shop to be a symbol for independent retail, but it started to feel like it. We wanted people to realise that shopping locally and supporting independent businesses was important. Careful to not shout too loudly from our artisan soapbox, we still cared enough to make the point when people would come in and look at items we were selling and then say aloud, Let’s see if we can find something similar online.
Yet at the same time, we had to face the reality that our business had plateaued. Could we have pumped more life into Calliope by spending even more time or money or effort running advertising, or PR, or building out a bigger online shop? Possibly. But we’d also started to lose steam, not because we were quitters or we’d moved on to the next thing, but because it was drifting away from the thing we always wanted it to be. It’d stopped being fun.
And so here we are, writing this as we look around the shop and begin to wind down an adventure in retail that we started four years ago. We talked about different ways of closing Calliope. Maybe we have a closeout sale? Should we just shut the doors one day and not even tell anyone? We wondered if people would think we were failures or that we had gotten in over our heads.
These are the sort of conversations you have with yourself (and your partner(s)) when you’re thinking about winding down a business. But why is that the case? Why should we feel ashamed or embarrassed about this? Opening Calliope was our shared dream, and we had the guts to do it. We gave it our best and sometimes, even when it’s a good idea and people like it, it’s not enough. Sometimes the market zigs when you zag. Sometimes what made sense for a while stops making sense.
So in the end, this isn’t a failure. We’re not “going out of business.” We’re finishing a project we started together and moving on to other things. And we’re doing it the same way we started. We’re throwing a party. We’re inviting friends and neighbours. We’re drinking wine and having some laughs. Because not every project needs to live forever and doing what makes you feel good is more important than doing something that drains you.
Life is short, and most importantly, it should be fun.