From Mary El Pearce. Follow her on Twitter@CupcakesDC and email her at maryelp[At]borderstan.com
If you take a stroll down 14th Street NW without a particular destination in mind, you’ll probably miss a lot. The juxtaposition between new, old and renovated buildings makes for exhilarating window shopping, but if you find yourself on a not-so-pretty block you may pass over a gem.
“This block will always look this way,” says Timothy Paul, owner of Timothy Paul Carpets & Textiles of his store’s block located on 14th Street between Rhode Island Avenue. and P Street. “That guy owns the building his shop is in; he lives above it.” He goes on to tell me about the other small business owners around him. After nine years in his location, he knows the neighborhood and the people who make it what it is.
The outside of Paul’s modern-looking store is surprisingly camouflaged amid the older stores, whose shabby exteriors tells the neighborhood’s history and their resistance to gentrification. Somehow, even so close to the Whole Foods whose urban prophecy: “If you build it, they will come,” seems fulfilled, these seemingly out of place shops survive. But then again, so does the upscale carpet store nestled among them.
Inside Timothy Paul’s store you’ll find carpets in brilliant colors and patterns, no one like any of the others. Not only are the carpets woven to last for decades, each one has a story behind it. If you ask Paul, who you’ll find in the store almost every day, he’ll tell you all the background he knows on every piece. And if you’re wondering where to get a great cup of coffee afterwards, he can tell you that as well, and who to talk to when you get there. Shopping here is an experience, and Paul will guide you through it with the kind of details only a longtime resident who is passionate about his trade and his neighborhood can offer.
Borderstan: Why did you decide to open a small business?
Timothy Paul: I went to school to be a painter, so at 27 I was painting during the day and waiting tables at night, and I realized I had to do something that resembled a career. I went to work for this woman in a rug shop, and she saw my enthusiasm and said, Here’s the ball, run with it. I had a lot of ideas on how to do it on my own and I was willing to take the risk, so I opened my own shop nine and a half years ago.
Borderstan: What do you like about carpets and textiles?
Paul: I like their uniqueness. They may have been originally created as garments, bed covers or wall hangings that were woven by an individual in their home or tent. I look at the material and use it differently. These pieces are labor and time intensive, and in that sense they’re like works of art. It parallels what I went to school for.
Borderstan: How has your life changed since you opened your own business?
Paul: In my home I’m surrounded by beautiful things that I probably wouldn’t own otherwise. This experience has taken me to places I probably wouldn’t otherwise have been to. As a business owner, you have to get up every day and tie your own shoelaces. Your and your store’s survival depend on you. So it’s probably made me tougher and harder working.
Borderstan: What’s the most challenging thing about running a small business in DC?
Paul: No. 1 is the price of doing business, and at the top of that list is the rent. DC has come through this recession better than any other city in the country, so rents are high and spaces are hard to come by. The second major hurdle is the Internet. It’s a wonderful thing that’s helped businesses, small and large, but in a small business like ours it can hurt, because we don’t have the capital to compete with rug producers who can sell their products directly on their website or through sites like One Kings Lane or Gilt. Customers will come in and look at my carpets then wait to shop on these websites, so I’ve made nothing and invested a lot. What the consumer doesn’t realize is that it’s not always cheaper online.
Borderstan: Any advice to someone thinking about starting a business?
Paul: Be patient and learn the business. If you want to open up a wine shop, go work for a wine shop for two or three years then work for another wine shop for two or three years, then work for an exporter. The failure of a lot of people is they love a particular thing or activity, so they open a store, and running a shop it’s not just about selling. It’s about inventory, negotiating a lease, hiring employees. For all that, you’d do better to gain some experience first.
Save your money. The price of doing business is so expensive, and now with the recession it’s so hard to get a loan. Be kind to your relatives and parents, because you’ll need some sort of income to get through.
And finally, you have to have all the confidence in the world. I never thought I would fail. I thought, I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life.