Back in July, after months of trying to work my head around the challenges I'm currently facing in my business, I made the decision to close this shop. To be totally honest, it wasn't a decision, it was a reality that I've been too afraid to face for the past two years. It's a loss that can no longer be avoided, and one I am feeling deeply. One of the things I've had a hard time coming to grips with is that there's not a lot of grey area when it comes to public perception when a business closes. You either stay open because you're successful, or you close because you've failed.
What I've been thinking about a lot is: Maybe not all businesses are meant to last forever. Maybe it's not a failure, it's just the end of a project. The difficult truth is that it's next to impossible to run a retail business with integrity in a world that's polluted with Amazon boxes. There shouldn't be any shame in deciding that it's not worth the fight anymore.
By the time we close our doors in November, it will be 7 years since cwpencils.com first went online as the world's most extensive pencil specialty shop. I'd quit my job at a lingerie shop to pursue this impossible dream, even though no matter how many times I crunched the numbers on how many pencils I needed to sell, it just didn't make sense. And that was fine, because I had a feeling that somehow it would work, and I was 23 and had the moxie to trust my gut and just go for it.
I didn't tell anyone outside of my immediate friends and family when the website went live or when the physical shop opened because I just really believed that, “if you build it they will come,” and I wanted others to discover it on their own. Within months, and in a tiny $1,800/month shoebox on Forsyth Street, CW Pencil Enterprise quickly grew from a one-woman show into a much more complicated operation. At that point, I had an interview scheduled with a national publication or news outlet almost every week, having put $0 into marketing or PR. It was clear that my strategy of leading with earnestness had paid off in a way that I was not at all prepared for.
The thing about growth is that sometimes it's not measured or strategized, that sometimes it happens because it just does, and you have to figure out how to ride the wave and keep your head above water. Never in a million years did I think things would turn out as they did. Seven years, two books, a much bigger shop and a global pandemic later, it feels as though I just recently found my footing and the mental space to step back and understand what this shop evolved into while I was busy just trying to keep up.
Even though I've made some unwise business decisions and haven't always known what I was doing, I've always trusted my gut and I've always insisted on doing things with as much integrity as I could manage, whether it was in sourcing products or making decisions as a boss. My employees have always been paid a living wage, with healthcare benefits and paid time off for full-time staff. We believe in things like taking mental health days, talking through our problems and making sure that everyone has what they need. I'm definitely not a perfect boss, and I'm not saying all of this as a pat on the back to myself -- I'm saying it because these things should be basic rights at a job, and because I'm angry that they're not. And while so many business owners choose to prioritize doing the right thing and then struggle to survive, others take advantage of loopholes and get away with a bare minimum that should be criminal.
Running a shop during a pandemic has been a real test of resilience and decision-making. Never has my job been harder, but never have I felt such overwhelming gratitude for the community that has formed around this business. The support we've received has been immense, and the engagement we've had through Instagram and projects like actionable letter-writing and pen pal matching has been great fun to share with you. I've long felt icky about traditional tactics to increase sales and am exhausted by the conflict between doing what's necessary to meet the financial needs of my business and doing things purely to engage, inspire and help others. However, the unfortunate truth is that running a shop is not a public service, and popularity doesn't pay the bills.
Please, do your very best to support the businesses in your own community. When you need to buy something, do you try to buy it from a local store before purchasing it online or through a corporate behemoth? If the answer is no, I implore you to do better if the resources are available to you. It's easy to say that you support small businesses, but in practice, do you actually?
To all of our customers and friends: THANK YOU, for making this dream a reality for so many years. For enabling me to provide a place for others to work and thrive. For teaching us all what it's like to be part of a community that really cares. I am in awe of what we've made together.
And as for me, it really feels like the right time to move on. I've spent the past seven years becoming an expert in something I cared deeply about, and while that's been the most rewarding experience of my life, I've always known that I wouldn't do the same job forever. I'm ready for a new adventure, and feel as though I have so much more to give, learn and share.
This is not goodbye, at least not quite yet. We'll be operating as usual through September, releasing the last new products in October while we wind down, and actually closing some time in November. In the meantime, follow us on Instagram or keep an eye out for email newsletter updates.
With love and appreciation,