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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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I didn’t post on Sunday because I was busy closing down the pottery studio that my wife, her parents, and I owned for the last two and a half years. As we were combing through the accumulated detritus of years of pottery painting and firing, I reflected on how far we had come from idea to failure and I figured that I should write up the shop’s story as a tribute. Yesterday closed a chapter on a period of our life filled with hopes and dreams that suddenly don’t seem all that important.

Painting in the Park Pottery Studio was the most recent iteration of the Gatti family’s ceramics empire. Okay, it wasn’t and probably won’t ever be an empire. Painting in the Park was originally Gwen and Joe’s ceramic painting operation at a weekly farmer’s market at Roadrunner Park in north Phoenix. They then decided to open a retail store at Cave Creek Road and Sweetwater in a small strip mall between an upholstery shop and a mortuary. To put it lightly, this was not a great retail location.

Sandi had an idea in January 2000 that we could invest some money in the shop, go all partner-y with her parents, and move the shop to a better location. We quickly incorporated as Painting in the Park, Inc. and sought a new location. We settled on Arrowhead Towne Center and found a great space right next to Robinson’s May—the space is still available incidentally. We were in the process of negotiations and getting ready to sign a lease when our contractor dropped the bombshell that he wasn’t going to reduce his prices as promised. That pretty much ended Arrowhead as a viable location. In retrospect, we probably should have left it at that but we were positively inspired with the idea.

We spent the next few months scouting for a better spot. In the end, we came upon the shopping plaza at 32nd Street and Greenway Road in north Phoenix around June 2000. We decided to sign a lease, but there were complications because the property was being sold and the old owner didn’t want us as a tenant. We had to wait until October for the escrow to finalize so we could move in and start retailing. The management company lied to us a few times in the interim to keep us from trying to find anything else. In the time it took to finally get a suite—June to October—we certainly could have found something better. Oh well, water under the bridge.

We signed the lease on October 17, 2000 with the opening slated for December 1, 2000. The delay was prodigious since the Christmas season is the gravy part of the year for pottery studios. We worked feverishly throughout November to get things in order. We had limited startup funds: Sandi and I contributed $15,000 and her parents provided all of the capital equipment and inventory. The majority of the money was spent building out the suite and ponying up the necessary deposits. When all was said and done, we had practically nothing for marketing and had to resort to unconventional means to get the word out that we existed. December, to say the least, was a slow month.

The first year flew by and we gradually built up a steady clientele. We created door hangers and walked many neighborhoods putting them up. We created the Web site you see today and submitted it to every local calendar, Web site, and search engine you could imagine. We eventually made it onto Channel 3’s mid-morning “news” show to demonstrate our bridal shower party package, of which we only ever booked one. We walked through parking lots nearby and stuck little fliers on windshields. I wanted to attack our competitors by papering their parking lots with targeted messages, but was prevented from doing so by the wholesale business of her parents.

The real turning point was September 11, 2001. We were gaining business each month and the rate was promising, though it wasn’t paying anything above expenses. The bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon affected our business in unexpected ways and we had several weeks of trickling sales. The Christmas season was disappointing and it created a downward spiral that kept us always playing catch-up.

As we accumulated more business and spread the word of value-priced ceramics and friendly service, we began to lose interest in the huge time drain our studio had become. The shop was paying for itself, but it wasn’t paying us anything. It’s really hard to volunteer week in and week out for something that doesn’t seem to be working. It was even worse when we would visit our competition and see them packed to capacity despite much higher prices, more limited selection, and inexperienced employees. We would ask ourselves, “What are we missing here?”

In the end, the part of the equation we were missing was exactly what we knew all along: location. Being in a high-traffic area confers certain benefits on a retail store that shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated. The rents are higher, but awareness of your brand is heightened. Our location was between a pretty high-traffic deli and a pizza restaurant—later a shrimp restaurant. These generated more foot traffic than the mortuary, but nothing like a movie theater or department store. Also, the customers of the deli were primarily Eastern Europeans, most of whom spoke broken English at best. There were some high-traffic parts of the plaza, like McDonald’s and Blockbuster, but they are what’s called destination locations. People go there and go home; they don’t usually linger around. We were further crippled by an architectural element that blocked our sign unless you came directly upon it.

I vow here and now never to open another retail store. They impose schedules that other self-employment options don’t. You are the slave to those hours. You can get employees, but if something happens to them, you’ve got to come in. Schedule management occupies your life. You can’t take a vacation unless you can assure adequate coverage. There’s still a lot of tasks to do to end the corporation, of course, but I can do them at my convenience and that’s something that has been a luxury for the last couple of years. I will never take free time for granted again, that’s for sure.