‘Maybe WE Should Buy That Old General Store!’

The start-up was not a new software company, a new cupcake store, or even a new idea. It was actually a remake of a very old idea.

It started with a woman and her husband who decided to move from Chicago to Wayne, Ill., a small, country town about 50 miles west of Chicago. In an e-mail to me, the woman shared the beginning of her business idea. “From the time I was old enough to drive, I would spend my weekend days riding a horse in Wayne and always thought, ‘Oh, what a dream to live in this town.’ I just couldn’t believe my eyes as I drove down this tree-canopied, quiet country road that opens into a sleepy little town of 2,000 seemingly trapped in a time long gone by — people riding horses in town and in fields, rarely a car driving by, lush green in spring and amber woods and prairie in autumn — when I came upon a real old-fashioned general store, just like out of a movie set.

“Even as a kid traveling around the Midwest going into those old-fashioned general stores,” she continued, “I became inspired with the very idea of owning a general store — an otherworldly, old-timey, mysterious, dark, and dusty emporium: penny candy and nuts and bolts and ice cream and eggs and milk and books and bread and coffee and bait and pop. A place where kids and grown-ups would come and meet up with their friends. It was my dream.”

Caroline Scheeler and her husband, Joe Vajarsky, and now their two children, have lived in Wayne for 17 years. And for 17 years they have watched the small store on the main road in town go in and out of business. For miles around, everyone knows this little store, which sat vacant recently for more than four years, a sad ghost in an otherwise idyllic setting. In fact, it was the only store in Wayne, so its closure represented a steep drop in sales tax revenue. And its vacant shell provided a daily reminder to the whole village that Wayne wasalmost perfect.

“Joe and I, and then our kids would always talk about that little store,” Caroline continued. “Oh, what WE could do with it. Everyone would love it. So … we did it. We worked out a deal with the owner to buy the building. This is really where the story begins.”

This is how most entrepreneurial stories begin: with a dream, with passion, with the leap! And then, well, often what comes next is the shock of reality. In this case, it did not take long. “We bought the building in June, and decided to name it Outpost General Store,” she wrote. “We thought we’d just spruce it up, but you know me. Has to be all or nothing. So we gutted the place. We did the floors. Just so. Keeping a patina finish. Painted. Hung bead board. Built counters and hung antique barn wood on the existing beams and partial exterior. Painted the exterior in a vintage looking finish.

“This simple little store has snowballed, no avalanched, into what seems to be a never-ending nightmare. We are just hemorrhaging money. The $18,000 coolers, the cost overruns on the build-out, and the true cost of, ‘Oh, we can do everything ourselves!’ What we didn’t consider was the cost of opening three weeks later than we could have if we would have contracted out some of the work. And that doesn’t even account for the emotional, intellectual, and physical cost of working nonstop for 12 weeks. And all of the money is gone. I mean all. Credit cards are all maxed. I’ve even succumbed to only going to the grocery store every other week to save money.”

There is more to this story. Caroline’s “day job” is being the creative force and co-buyer for a popular home furnishings store in Chicago. While she was the main architect of the look and feel of the store, which is known for an interesting and eclectic mix of furniture and accessories, Caroline never had to worry about the many growing pains of management and finances that afflicted the store as it went from start-up to adolescence. She left that to her boss, the store’s somewhat-in-over-his-head owner. Me.

I hired Caroline as an assistant buyer about 20 years ago for my fledgling home accessory department. She evolved into an important member of my team, and she met her husband, Joe, a talented artist who used to work for me, on the job. Yes, this is a family affair. Spurred by her own entrepreneurial adventure, Caroline recently told me the kind of truth a boss seldom hears about those days when we were going through my nightmare.

“I’ve had this frequent memory looping in my head lately of you seriously and frantically telling me of your financial woes when you bought the new building and we were expanding Jayson Home, back in 1997. I will be honest with you now. I not only didn’t really believe you that you could be so financially strapped and emotionally stressed, but now I profoundly realize, I just had absolutely NO idea the reality and gravity of what you were talking about. Sixteen years later, I now know exactly how you felt.”

Better late than never? I guess. But it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Caroline and Joe need to make this store work. They are “all in,” a place I know all too well. Joe is running the store, and Caroline has temporarily cut back her hours at Jayson Home to help with the buying and set-up. Their plan is to bring “city chic” to the country. And she and Joe — as I know better than anyone — are uniquely qualified to do the job. “We open next week,” Caroline wrote me a few weeks ago, “and I hope that the second we open the doors we will have money coming in. What a gigantic relief that will be, to breathe and sleep again!”

They had the big opening, and the town did show up, enthusiastically. They clearly appreciated the beautifully designed store with an authentic but updated feel and the carefully selected merchandise: artisan cheese, ice cream, soda, beer, wine, and spirits. Once again, the town was whole — and for the first week, the money did flow.

But Caroline and Joe are not out of the woods. They are still short of cash, they need more inventory, and they realize that they can’t expect the new-store excitement to last forever. So school has begun. I now have a chance to share with them what I have learned about cash flow, inventory turns, and budgeting — all lessons that Caroline forced me to learn back when she was focused on spending the money and buying the merchandise that helped make Jayson Home successful. This time she’s seeing the whole picture.