(This story of Jill Elliott and her shops Haberdashery and Black Chalk Home & Laundry is the latest in our series of small business stories in partnership with Gracie Byrd Jones. You can see more here.)
I'm almost certain that every business is a combination of grit, genius, and also the following of a little voice in your head that keeps leading you down the path. This story of Jill Elliott and how she began her second retail concept, Black Chalk Home & Laundry is no exception. I loved chatted with her about the real and tangible steps that she took to get each of her businesses off the ground, how they were funded, and how her unique perspective truly defines these eclectic retail gems. If you're planning a trip to the Texas Hill Country, you will want to be sure to add Black Chalk to your list! Keep reading for the full interview!
Tell us about your background. What’s the first job that you ever had? How did that eventually lead you to start Haberdashery and more recently now BLACKCHALK? (I’m always curious whether this was a straight line kind of trajectory for people or if it was a more winding path.)
I went to Hight School in Dallas, Coppell actually, and went west to college. I majored in Interior design with a minor in Fashion Merchandising. For my Interior Design internship I ended up in Fredericksburg working for Carol Bolton of the famed HOMESTEAD stores. Upon graduation, I came back to Fredericksburg and worked for the HOMESTEAD family in sales at Room No 5 for a year and a half, and then moved in to the behind the scene design studio. I loved working with textiles, designing new concepts for the stores and going to High point for Carol’s furniture collection with EJVictor. It was a very creative time!
Unexpectedly I met my future husband during these early years in Fredericksburg. We married and 3 years later were having a baby. My desire to not miss a thing with my child inspired me to start Haberdashery Boutique. I wanted to be able to bring him with me to work and enjoy watching him grow and I was ready to do my own thing!
"I started Haberdashery on $5,000. These early years were my recycling years…if I sold something for $60 then I had $60 to go buy two of something else.. I kept putting that little bit of money to work and my inventory started to grow."
I started getting some recognition that Haberdashery was the place to shop. Nearly 20 years later, Haberdashery is a main stay on Main Street with a huge following all over the world. Things were plugging along just fine but I had this feeling that I needed to do something else…either at Haberdashery, kind of reinvent the store or just something, but i wasn’t sure!
My clothing boutique Haberdashery celebrates its anniversary on March 17th. On the 20th of that month I woke up from a dream with one word in the form of vision…BLACKCHALK. I wrote it on a note in my phone that morning because I saw it so vividly, secondly that I actually remembered it and thirdly why that word??? The next Monday I was driving to Haberdashery down Lincoln Street. The old Laundry building has been on everyone’s radar for years because it has sat idle for so long. Last year the owners started fixing it up and we’ve all watched it start to transform! The locals were excited about the possibility of a new restaurant or something fun in the building and we were all eagerly awaiting its debut! This particular Monday I glanced at the building as I drove past, the door was open and the building permits were still there….but something else was on the door…. A BRAND NEW FOR RENT SIGN!!! Oh my gosh!! It’s a good thing there wasn’t a car behind me because I screeched to a halt, chucked a U and stopped in front of the building amazed that it was for rent!! How could this be?!?!?! I snapped a photo of the number on the sign and went on to Haberdashery for the work day. Still the building kept haunting me and all day I talked myself out of calling… “I’m happy, I don’t need another project, I like my life…” Blah, blah, blah….Tuesday that little voice was still talking so finally at 5:30 that night I called "just to get info" ;). I agreed to meet the owner’s daughter the next day to see the space. The building is the coolest….clay tile walls, all the old line equipment in still on the ceiling, lots of window, high ceilings and lots of character. The FOR RENT ad hit the paper that Wednesday afternoon and the owner started getting calls about the building. Thursday I looked at it again with my mom and Teri, my long time manager and friend at Haberdashery. Friday I met the daughter again and said “I don’t know what I want to do, but I want to DO IT! PLEASE let me do something amazing in this space!!!” And then we kinda shook on it! I walked around the space many times during this week and in a weird way, felt out the building….what does it say, what does it want, what suits this space. Mind you, this was a working industrial laundry facility from the 1920s to the 1980s. The walls sweated with condensation, steam poured out of the windows, the women worked hard and shared their life stories side by side with the others. I’m sure they laughed and cried and loved big. I wanted to really capture the feelings of connection that the history of this building housed for so many years.
A week or so later, the landlord asked me if I had a name for the new store and I said yes I do…it’s BLACKCHALK Home and Laundry! My vision was born in a dream weeks before and it was coming true.
So this road to BLACKCHALK hasn’t been planned and it certainly wasn’t a straight line. I knew I was getting itchy feet and needed something fresh and creative to do I just had no idea it would be another store! I still love Haberdashery and am still the sole buyer but thankfully I have wonderful people there who have allowed me this time to start something new. Blackchalk is an extension of Haberdashery…. it’s a lifestyle store for those with the same eclectic taste that I have in fashion and now we’ve brought it HOME! #loveyourhome
Your shop is so beautiful and has such a carefully curated style. How did you hone your aesthetic? Is it something that has stayed the same over the decades or has it evolved? Do you immediately know when something is right for BLACKCHALK?
BLACKCHALK is just a year and a half old. My personal style has evolved from Shabby Chic, to floral, to antique and now to clean, color, texture, and interesting things that I find attractive. I think that if something speaks to you…you love it, like LOVE it, it’ll work in your house. It doesn’t have to match, let it tell a story of your life, your travels, you family, your history…. that makes your house a home.
With my very eclectic taste, BLACKCHALK is a revolving door of items…. Right now I have this gorgeous blush velvet sofa on the floor paired with a moroccan tribal rug and sage chairs…Next week I’m bringing in a Black and White pattern on a great sofa body and it’ll look completely different but the store will still be cohesive. An item has to stir something in me to make me want it for the store. I have to love it (because what if it never sells??? then I can bring it home and love it here too!:))
So yes, usually I know pretty instantly if I want it for the store! I also want to know the story behind the item…who made it, where, what was the inspiration so i can share this with the customer. The fun thing with a lifestyle store is that anything goes!!!! I have jewelry, caftans, rugs, turkish pillows, lamps, rocks, botanicals, leathers, gifts, lighting, kitchen goodies, books and then all of the great furniture!! It’s really a something for everyone store….I love that people come in and linger, and linger and go back around the other way, and linger….it really is a feel good space and I’m proud to say that we captured the Laundry’s history in a way that others feel it too.
"I tell my kids that in today’s world you can create a niche for yourself. I feel like I have created a little niche with the eclectic, family friendly, unique goods that I carry in both of my stores. Be true to yourself…. create that NICHE that only you can do."
What has been the biggest learning curve with opening your own business?
I’ve been in retail for nearly 25 years now (wait WHAT?????) I started very small with Haberdashery and grew as I could. Nearly 20 years later, we are in our third location on Main Street now and are very happy were we are. BLACKCHALK was possible because of the success of Haberdashery. I would not have one with out the other. The biggest learning curve is delegation for me. I tend to want to do everything myself but I just can’t get it all done alone. Hire people that are like minded, that love what you’re doing, that are kindred spirits, and what skill can that person do to help you execute the task?? Oh and hire an accountant. My right brained self has happily relinquished this to my leaf brained accountant!!! ( although I did do my own accounting for years and it’s important to see daily where you are financially and make sure everyone is getting paid, sales tax filed, etc…. I learned much about my abilities during this time.)
Thanks to the Internet, a lot of people’s businesses have little in start up overhead. Not so with a boutique like yours! How did you go about funding your business? Did you learn anything from that process?
Thanks to the success of Haberdashery I was able to start BLACKCHALK without a loan. I also paid it back with in 7 months! If you have good credit, apply for NET 30 with companies. They may not extend credit for the first time, but once you're established, apply and utilize this extended pay. My early years at Haberdashery when I was going into the Jr. League Christmas Affair and I needed more inventory, my bank gave me a line of credit to tap as I needed. If you don’t need to draw, you don’t pay, but the peace of mind knowing I had back up funds was helpful. Also, shop around….just because your regular bank says no to a loan, doesn’t mean the little bank next door will too! Whatever you do, don’t over extend yourself financially. It’s better to start small or online and work your way to greatness then to be struggling to pay rent every month because you’re too big! Good things come from growth…trust yourself.
What are you not doing now that you hope to be doing five years from now?
I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up! Last Fall in went to Morocco and fell in love. I’m going back again this summer. In 5 years, I’d like to really be traveling several times a years, buying trips to beautiful places bringing home amazing items, maybe designing clothing for Haberdashery along the way. I feel like BLACKCHALK is unique and the thought of opening a few more stores is appealing…and scary. Remember that word delegate???!!! So, we’ll see, if another awesome building opens up in some cool place, then the next BLACKCHALK might be born!!
Photography by Gracie Byrd Jones