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Closing Time

Every New Beginning Comes from Some Other Beginning's End

Melaney Houle
President, Owner of Lotus & Compass Inc

As I sit down to write this blog post, and ponder a proper title, almost instantly the lyrics to Semisonic's "Closing Time" come to mind. I am not sure why, as I am not even much of a fan of that song. But it feels appropriate for what follows. "Every new beginning comes from some other's beginning's end."

One of the most beautiful things about this journey of entrepreneurship is that it is an organic, evolving process. Almost any business owner will tell you that creating and implementing plans for a small business is a constant flow. Just as soon as you find something that seems to work quite efficiently, the game changes. And it is a monthly, weekly and even, sometimes daily, trip back to the drawing board, to evaluate and re-strategize. It is the part of the work that makes it so invigorating, but at times, it is also one of the heaviest aspects of the journey.We went through this very process a little over a year ago. 

We had been successfully operating an online boutique out of our home for over three years. It allowed us the time to be home with our children while they were babies, saving us the need for childcare and allowing us to make treasured memories. But as our business started to take off with the opening of our own company in 2018, Brandon and I felt called to establish ourselves in a more formal way in our local community. When a wonderful opportunity was presented before us, we took a big leap into the world of brick and mortar retail, and opened our first storefront at 264 Exchange Street in Chicopee Center. Many people called us crazy, for choosing Chicopee Center as our location, as it had long been considered a neglected "lost cause" by some. But we had watched other small businesses bring a fresh zest to the heart of our city, and we too, had a vision of what we could contribute to our downtown. And per usual, I wasn't taking no for an answer.

As we cut the ribbon to our first store, we also turned the page to a new chapter in our story. Those first few months were a major adjustment after working from home for several years, but we found a new flow and routine. We quickly settled into the existing network of small business owners in the Center, and we joined the effort to revitalize the heart of our great city. The joy, the fulfillment that this brought to me as a lifelong Chicopee resident, is something that I cannot quite put into words. Our business continued to grow and expand, with lots of customers finding us for the very first time. We made lifelong connections and friendships, we collaborated with other business owners on 

 projects, goals and dreams. We were able to use our voices as residents and also as small business owners, to help shape the future of our Downtown District. As the months went on and our first holiday season in the store approached, we eagerly planned for our holiday shopping events. At the same time, behind the scenes, we were planning for a big expansion at the end of the year. Starting promptly the day after Christmas, we moved our entire store up to the front half of our building, with big picture windows and about double the square footage. While we were nervous about taking on the extra overhead expense, we also felt truly, that the entire situation had fallen together exactly how it was meant to be for us. And we were ready to take things to the next level.

Of course, a new space meant another huge celebration. We hosted our grand re-opening party in January, and what a party it was! Live mannequins in the store windows, an acoustic performance by local musician Phil Ferreira, delicious food and a huge raffle to raise money for Safe Passage in Northampton. 

We had our highest single day of sales since launching Lotus & Compass Inc in 2018. From start to finish that night, the store was packed full of customers and their families, who came to help us celebrate this momentous occasion. It felt like the Universe saying "I got you". 

A month later, as I completed my 200 hour yoga teacher training program, Brandon was hard at work converting an internal board room into a peaceful, serene yoga studio. Chicopee didn't yet have a dedicated yoga studio, and our local community was so excited for a more convenient location to take a class. I was excited too, as my two passions collided. 

I was going to be able to blend my passion for yoga AND my passion for body-positive fashion, giving women a place to enjoy a well-rounded dose of self care. Plus, this yoga studio space would double nicely as an events room, where we could host workshops and book clubs. We didn't want to be just a boutique/yoga studio. We wanted to be a place where women could come to be seen. We wanted to be a hub for community and empowerment.

The first week of March, we caught a glimpse of that reality. I remember on our first (and only) evening of Wednesday night classes, at around 5pm the store was buzzing with the most beautiful energy. A few ladies were in store browsing, and others arrived together to take a yoga class after work. 

I remember looking out into the crowd and just feeling...blessed. We did this. We had created this beautiful space where women can come in and share space. And I just felt the swell of pride, like being on the top of a wave at high tide. And then, in less than 48 hours, that wave started crashing down all around us. That Friday, local news reported that Baystate Medical Center, just a short 1-2 mile drive from us, had over 20 possible cases 

of Covid-19. This mysterious illness, that most of our country had essentially shrugged off for quite some time, had now landed in our neighborhood. At first we figured "okay, this sucks, but out of an abundance of caution, let's shut down the store and yoga studio for a week or two and see how things progress". With Brandon having to take immunosuppressive medication to manage his auto-immune condition, we wanted to mitigate the risks to his health and also the health of our store customers and yoga students. Knowing very little about this illness, we thought the shut down would be fairly quick, maybe a few weeks? Maybe a month? I don't exactly remember what my assumed timeline was, but I do know that I laugh now, at the naiveté of my March self.

Friday, March 13th was the last day our store and yoga studio was open. I cried the next day, as I printed fliers out to hang up in the windows, informing our customers of this decision. But I told myself "it's only temporary; we are just getting started...this is not the end". We shifted ourselves back into "online only" gear, which thankfully was still mostly second nature after so many years of operating with that business model. We also quickly adapted to offer virtual yoga classes on Zoom...and we waited.

March turned into April- which then dragged on into May and June. All along, we continued to maintain our store overhead expenses, preserving this physical space that felt so perfect to hold our business, and with it, our dreams. I think it was in June when it finally started to sink in that this virus, this global pandemic wasn't going to be ending anytime soon. Without a solid treatment method, and no real way to predict how any one person will react to having the virus, I kept coming back to one thought: what am I willing to risk to preserve a dream? And even IF we open our store back up, what does that look like? Will customers feel safe coming down? Will I feel safe being there? What was truly the point of having a brick and mortar store to shop if our customers could not try on clothing? How would we keep things clean and sanitary? How would these monthly overhead expenses impact our business as a whole? What if we ended up catching Covid-19? What if, what if, what if...a lot of questions with very few answers.

A dear friend and fellow small business owner used the analogy of pruning a plant (knowing it would resonate, as my favorite hobby while home on quarantine has been tending my very first garden). She referenced the need to prune and trim the plant back significantly at times, to preserve and improve the health of the whole. And ultimately, to allow for a stronger yield. That thought was pinned up like a sticky note, in my brain. I found myself staring it down, over and over again. Was I willing to risk the health of my whole business, along with the health of my family, to preserve one branch? 

It was a few weeks of some deep thought, some soul searching and some number crunching...but ultimately, the answer was no. Nothing was worth risking the health of our family, and as much as it devastated us to make the decision to relinquish our physical store space, we knew it was what was necessary to be able to remain financially solvent, and maintain the overall health of our business. Many tears were shed, and at times we have wondered if we made the right choice. But deep down, 

there is a peace, a knowing. This is not the end...its just another new beginning. As it stands today, we are still finishing the work of clearing out the last fixtures and boxes from the store front. Truthfully, Brandon has done most of that work. Partly because of my chronic back pain...but mostly because being in that space makes my heart feel broken. Letting go of a dream is never an easy task, even when you know that it is the best choice in the long run.

Covid-19 has brought with it so much destruction. Over 150,000 American lives lost and that number is still climbing. Countless businesses have shuttered their doors for good. Many more will likely be forced to shut down before this is over. We consider ourselves fortunate and blessed, because our business continues to survive in the online format. Our hard work over the course of four years to build a strong and consistent online presence has more than paid off. Our biggest test was presented to us in March, and we flowed where we needed to in order to be able to keep our business alive. We have adapted, we have weeded out the excess and honed our craft/business model to meet the call of the times. This transition has not been easy, but it has proven to us that we can continue to develop our company and our brand to meet the needs of our family, and our world, over time. 

We went into this business because we wanted just that: time. Time with our children, time with each other. While we never anticipated all of us being stuck inside our 1200 square foot home for five straight months, this time at home as brought us back to our roots, it has reminded us of why we do what we do. We have once again gone back to the drawing board, and come up with a new system to carry us through until the next phase of our business. Will we open another store someday? Maybe! Maybe once this is all over, we will be ready to try again. Or perhaps the Universe will lead us down a different path. We don't know for sure; but we do know that the options are endless. 

To all of our friends, family and customers who have showed up for us these last five months, no words that I can type could ever possibly relay my gratitude. They say when the going gets tough, you find out who your friends are. And we have found a community so full of love, and full of individuals who share in our dream and continue to allow us to make it a reality each and every day. 

We don't know for sure what the next year will look like for us, but we do know that whatever circumstances come our way, we will be ready to pivot as needed. 

This is not the end...it's just another new beginning. 

XO,

Melaney

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