Audrey Woollen, Owner, Urbanic
Venice, Los Angeles
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie Conversation with Audrey Woollen, owner of Urbanic, a luxe paper boutique and general purveyor of crafts and fine gifts on Abbot Kinney, Venice CA. Long before Abbot Kinney was named one of the coolest be-seen-at strips in America, Urbanic lay claim to the sophisticated stationery tastes of its bohemian Venetian community. Audrey Woollen, wife, mother and business woman extraordinaire (not to mention tastemaker, Instagram wonder and general craft and design visionary) is the drive behind this charming boutique situated on the east end of the street, near the Venice Boulevard intersection.
The store not only sells delectable paper offerings, including covetous cards (she gets dozens of product submissions daily) and uber-cool journals, they’re all about building community, both as a business and family. From backyard movies to local crafting sessions, book launches and lemonade stands run by her kids (for charity, naturally), Audrey and her store is beloved by neighbours, tourists and bloggers alike. If you’ve a penchant for paper, artisan cards and gilded gifts then you need to step into this carefully curated wonderland. Alternatively, head to their bespoke bridal lounge/ invitation service: perfect for weddings, life events and everything in between. It’s truly crafted luxe.
I sat down with Audrey to talk about what it takes to be an local store owner in Venice, hear about the Urbanic story and understand a little more about interweaving family into this beautifully styled business. When we arrived they were busy decorating the store for Christmas, as Fall began edging into the Holiday season. In the outdoor area outback, next to the guest house used by the Pilates business (classic Venice), there were a host of boxes filled to the brim with all kinds of festive looking paper, glittery tape and expertly letter-pressed cards, perfect accents for the discerning gift-giver. While I was still surveying the landscape, my photographer was already shooting pictures. Like a kid in a candy store, she had found her home, excitedly grabbing stills of all the beautifully designed products set up out front and around the till area.
Ever the consummate host, Audrey was more concerned with checking we were ok and apologizing for not being more organized, which of course, was totally unnecessary. Her gift of hospitality precedes her however, (just snag an invite to one of their delicious back garden BBQ’s or movie screenings, or go to a special Urbanic event and you’ll see what I mean) so we were well taken care of. We sat down in the back area, usually reserved for excited brides trying to figure out their perfect invitation sets and got to chatting.
What originally inspired you to get involved in the stationery world and start Urbanic?
‘As a kid I always had a deep love for paper things, writing mail, or getting it.’ Audrey notes. ‘I began polishing the art of correspondence by sending letters to relatives or pen pals.’ (This art would come in handy as she and her husband Joshua later sustained their dating communication by letter writing too.)
She continues, ‘Then, I was living on the East Coast and working in the fashion industry, repping different brands and lines. When I moved to the West Coast I actually thought of opening a clothing store. But soon I started designing invitations for friends on the side, as well as continuing my 9-5 fashion job. One day I was walking down the street in Santa Monica when my ‘aha!’ moment hit and the golden Urbanic seed got planted. So my husband and I jumped into it. This would have been about 10 years ago now. We rented out a garage on California, a street off Abbot Kinney. We stuck some signs up saying Urbanic. It didn’t even have a bathroom, but we made it cute, hung lights, painted. It felt like a studio.’
It was there Audrey continued designing cards, creating a line she sold at festivals.
‘When the time was right we started looking around for a store, but couldn’t afford one. We found this place in Santa Monica called The Merchants Mart, a bunch of different stores contained in one space. The bonus was we wouldn’t have to be there working it, especially because I was still in fashion. The rent was affordable. We did that for a year. It was exciting. For us it was a big deal. The best part was because of its location, it allowed us entry to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. We’d sell more those Sunday mornings than all week in the store. We realised we had a market.’
One day they were walking down Abbot Kinney and found their current store available for rent. It was charming and cute and exactly what we they in mind, but situated at the undeveloped end of the street. They decided to go for it anyway. After some luck (someone else’s rental application fell through) they got the lease. It seemed providential. ‘Most of the stores on the street were too big for us at the time, we couldn’t have renovated them. This one was perfect,’ she says. But things also changed pretty quickly.
‘The day after we signed the lease I found out that I was pregnant. That was 2006. It was crazy. We were building a store, I was pregnant, and we had no idea what we were doing. It was just us. We were still doing the farmers market on Sundays, so I'd be completely pregnant, get there at 5am to set up and then I’d be so tired I’d take naps underneath the table and watch people walk by.
The craziness continued even when we opened. We had our son Javin and I was the only employee. He was with me everyday, so if I had to nurse I’d call my husband and he’d come in and watch the front of the store. It was a very makeshift experience!’
We move on to talk a little about what Abbot Kinney was like back then, and why they were initially drawn to the area.
‘I first moved from the East Coast, which was tough. There was immediate community there, you were always around people out on the street and it was easy to get from Point A to Point B. It’s not like that in LA.’
(For those of you who don’t live in LA, it's pretty much obligatory to own a car, expect traffic at all times, avoid public transport and leave an hour to get anywhere. Suffice to say, she was hesitant.)
‘I discovered Venice before I moved out here and said to Joshua this was where we needed to live. You can bike around and walk, and it just feels smaller than other places. Venice felt like a neighbourhood. Unlike the Boardwalk which is so touristy, Abbot Kinney still had that local feel, even though the whole end of our block was completely undeveloped. Positioning here was a risk because people weren’t really shopping down this end yet. But luckily a couple of other retailers opened around the same time as us, and we all pioneered this area of the block together.’
However, within the next two years the economy collapsed. ‘We weren’t sure we were going to make it. There were several times we thought we were going out of business.’ But they’re still here. ‘We love our customers. People say how much the store makes them happy, and that makes me happy. That’s what we want. Almost all of the relationships we have made in Venice are through the shop. Families and their kids. People who have a likeminded aesthetic.’
It seems community and relationships are key to the Urbanic experience?
‘We wouldn’t be here without that. To be fulfilled from the experience this store offers is amazing. I’ve seen people have reunions here. People who lived in New York and hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, and then they run into each other here. It’s a great feeling to be part of that memory. We’ve had brides do their invitations here, and then come by a couple of years later with their baby. It feels really good to be involved in these rich treasures of life.
We’ve established some of our closest friends through Urbanic. Our lives are completely different through this, just by being a part of others peoples’ lives.'
This naturally leads into how their family is interwoven into the Urbanic DNA.
‘When I met Joshua we lived on opposite ends of the country. It was before email had taken off properly. We would talk on Fridays, but when we’d think of each other we’d also write and send a letter. Every time I got one I’d have a burst of excitement. The more we got into it, the more we’d be handcrafting them. And then we got engaged, married, got the store and we had Javin and then Ian. As a baby, Javin was in the shop with me. It was challenging, but now he’s grown a little he knows everyone in the neighbourhood!’
And how do they continue to balance family and business?
‘It’s a juggle that I’m still figuring out. As my kids grow they have different needs. And as the store grows it also needs more time. It’s always shifting with every phase and season. I don't think anyone in the world has the secret. You just go with what you have. Our kids always come first so it’s just compartmentalising things and working around that.’
As Urbanic grows we talk more concretely about the business today. Where does she find new products?
‘I like the hunt for the product. I really like finding stuff. We attend the The Gift Show and The Stationery Show in New York and we work with reps. A lot comes on our radar that way. Submissions come in often. But I always try and keep my eye out… on things like Etsy and other sites, and what’s being posted there. Even if it’s not a line yet. If I see something I like I go after it. In some cases I’ll turn it into a line.
We have an illustrator coming in this week. When I saw her stuff she was only doing custom work for clients. I asked if she’d make a line out of her work… so we’re her first retailer. Hopefully people will see my vision and love it as much as I do. And for her, if it works out, and she starts wholesaling her stuff, well then she has a line on her hands.’
How do people find out about Urbanic, how do you build the brand?
‘Having a store for seven years is one immediately helpful thing. We’ve gotten the street-cred of being in the same location. So some people who know about us are just from the neighbourhood, word of mouth. I would also say we have a strong online presence. We just keep building that facet. I started the blog in the second (maybe third) year and we kept it going the best we could, trying to put out original content all the time, especially concentrating on curation.
We use Twitter, but Instagram has taken over because it’s so fun and easy to manage. We use it for communicating the Urbanic ‘lifestyle,’ from product to store features, as well as glimpses into what we like and who we are as a family. I don’t think people just want the glossy finish anymore. They want to know who the store is: who built it, who is behind it. Facebook is used mostly for posting information like store events.’
Where do you see Urbanic going in the future?
We get asked a lot to open other locations. But right now that’s logistically a little tough. To have a store the way we want is to have store we’re involved in and we love and care about…from merchandising, staff and creating the experience. I know how much it takes to make that happen so we’re not at that place right now. But we are working on the web store and hope to launch that in 2014. We’ll be able to ship cross country and internationally then as well.’
As we close the conversation Audrey gives some advice to other people with a passion or dream to be a business owner.
‘I could say lots of things but lets stick with a couple. Firstly, hold onto that passion with all of your might. It’s that passion that will set your dream apart and make it unique from anyone else. There’s also the whole other side of ideas - business plans and dollars and cents - that doesn’t always match up with the creative vision. Don’t let those things squash you and prevent you from taking the risk and going for it. If it’s a burning desire on your heart, how much better would it be to try and see if it works, rather than not try at all? I think back to when I had that burning desire. I had to ask, do we take the risk and potentially lose it all, or play it safe? But I didn’t want to die feeling I backed out of an opportunity. At least I would know if it worked or not.
In order to move forward you need take that risk, don’t be afraid to.
My advice on business side is know your market and know who you are buying for. I see a lot of businesses go out because they are just buying or doing something for themselves and aren’t taking into account who their customer is… or they haven’t done their research on the neighbourhood or who is actually shopping, for example. Either where they are located or the way they are angling themselves.’
Two great pieces of advice: If it's burning in you take the risk, but know your market so you’re best positioned for success with your customer base.
For more information visit: http://urbanicpaper.com
Image Credits: Yvonne Goll