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Capitol Hill gothic boutique says only a ‘miracle’ can save it — Plus, T-Mobile dials Broadway

(Image: BedlamBedlam)

(Image: BedlamBedlam)

Every now and then the flow of daily events includes coincidences that appear to be part of connected patterns. Sometimes, a T-Mobile just opens on Broadway and it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes, your friendly neighborhood gothic fashion shop just can’t make the rent.

“It looks like, short of a miracle, we’re going to be forced to close our doors at the end of this month,” the management of the 18-month-old BedlamBedlam boutique posted Wednesday. “We’ve spent the last year and a half struggling to make it work, and at this point we just don’t see any way.”

Meanwhile on Broadway, the sign has gone up outside the Broadway Market shopping center for a new T-Mobile store, one of nine locations now within a 5-mile radius of Capitol Hill but the only true blue T-Mobile operation in the neighborhood.

Thanks to @gordonwerner for sharing the picture

Thanks to @gordonwerner for sharing

Back on E Pike, it doesn’t sound like that miracle is going to happen. The note posted by owners Suki Valentine and Shea Kauffman about the store’s likely demise is a cold hard look at the challenges of making small retail work on Capitol Hill. It’s worth reading the whole thing:

It looks like, short of a miracle, we’re going to be forced to close our doors at the end of this month.  We’ve spent the last year and a half struggling to make it work, and at this point we just don’t see any way.

In retrospect we never stood a chance.  When we opened 18 months ago, we recognized a need for more diversity for retailing to the darkly inclined.  Seattle has a wonderful nightlife catering the the gothic community, the scene is active and vibrant, we’re inclusive and generous.  It has plenty of demand for elegant lace, spiderweb skirts, gothic pencil skirts, pinstripe pants, etc…  The point is that there was nothing wrong with the fundamental plan.  The fashion scene is growing, alternative culture is coming back, we’re entering a renaissance.  Frankly, Seattle wants what bedlambedlam has to offer.

So what happened?

The reality of opening up a small business in a depressed economy with no assets and little capital is what happened.  We estimated about $100,000 start up costs when we opened.  In retrospect I think $200,000 would have been more appropriate.  In reality we opened just shy of $50,000.  Of that $50,000, a sizable chunk went just to setting up shop, leaving the remaining for product.  That is the key.

A small business needs to cover its rent, its labor, and miscellaneous expenses just to keep the doors open.  In our case that came close to $6,000 a month.  You also need to cover the cost of the product you are selling while also maintaining competitive prices.  In our case that meant we needed about $12,000 a month in sales just to stay open.  Here’s the problem.  If you have $30,000 in product, $12,000 is over 1/3 of your inventory.  There does not exist a Gothic clothing store in this world that turns over 1/3 of its inventory every month.  (We in fact only stayed open by continuing to leverage our credit and finance the stores operations against an owners pay check.)

If you walk into any successful Gothic / Alternative clothing store, you are likely to see well over a hundred thousand dollars in product.  Often two or three times that.  It creates the diversity that is required to fulfill the desires of our customers.  And I know you have felt it.  I’ve seen so many of you come in and find we have exactly what you want, just not in your size.  Or see you discover that what we’re carrying isn’t quite what you’re looking for, but I know what would.  We’ve had to make hard decisions:  do we get this product that we know is selling well, or order more of these bondage shorts because we have a customer that requested it?  Do we replace our womens clothes that have sold because they sell better, or expand our men’s selection since they’re complaining?  It broke our hearts to progressively see more and more of you leave our store disappointed because we didn’t have the capital to carry what you were after.  It breaks our hearts now to write this.

You have been tremendously supportive.  Men have come in seeing if we have anything new month after month; hoping.  So many of you have come in and insisted on making sure you didn’t leave empty handed.  We have perpetually maintained mutual enthusiasm and it has paid off.  This years sales is better than last years, with less than half the inventory!  You also showed us that our business model was correct, even though it wasn’t a miracle worker.

We opened this space with a business in mind that was a part of its community.  That served a diversity of sizes, genders, races, etc…  That we would fight rape culture, beauty culture, the culture of privileges, with Gothic culture.  We weren’t looking for customers, we were looking for fans.  We were searching for cheerleaders!  We insisted our staff worked slow sales, never wanting one of you to regret a purchase.  We paid our workers well, and sought only those who believed in what we were doing.  We kept our prices reasonable instead of gaming you with sales.  We leveraged our knowledge of the fashion scene to bring you underrepresented brands, smaller brands, and local brands.  We forged relationships with local crafts people.  And to the very best of our ability responded to the requests you gave us.  In effect, you helped us to prove that a business can be flourish living to the ethical standards nearly all of you embrace.

Some of you might question if it was proved since we’re closing.  Well, I have absolutely no doubt, and I think anyone who saw our operation would have no doubt, that we would be doing quite well if we had the product to support our business.  If people could count on finding what they wanted, and if they could count on always finding new things, I am certain we could remain open forever.  Sadly, none of us are wealthy, and angel investors aren’t really interested in small time retailing.

Some of you may wonder what this all means.  For starters it means big sales for the rest of this month!  We need to liquidate what we have, and that means quite the discount for you. For starters, effective immediately, everything in the store (except Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab) is 20% off.

This brings us to our second point.  It is our intention to settle every account.  All of our consignment vendors will be paid, our landlord will be paid.  Our Indiegogo supporters will get their rewards.  We will be able to do that, but your support in this final month will certainly help.

Third, and our facebook page will remain open.  I’ll work on the small business technology that this experience has inspired, and we’ll reorient bedlambedlam into a fashion and lifestyle blog for the time being.

Finally, will we ever be back?  I don’t know.  Part of me hopes that some wealthy entrepreneur with a little cash will come and rescue this.  Frankly I’m more interested in seeing bedlambedlam survive than I am in seeing a profit.  But failing that miracle, we may open up an online clothing store, and if that is successful, we may look at reopening a store if Seattle still has the void it had before we opened.  What is certain is that we will have left a mark that will live on in this scene.

CHS visited BedlamBedlam when it debuted in fall of 2011. Recently, we featured the store’s effort to crowdsource additional funding. That campaign ends next week having thus far raised only a few hundred dollars of its $25,000 goal.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, joins an overhauled streetfront for the QFC-anchored Broadway Market. CHS reported on the BECU expansion — and moves of smaller merchants — here  and the impending arrival of Wells Fargo in the shopping the center.

On the fashion front, Broadway will also soon gain a new purveyor of women’s style as Las Vegas-based chain Bettie Page Clothing stockings-up in the former home of the state liquor store.

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18 thoughts on “Capitol Hill gothic boutique says only a ‘miracle’ can save it — Plus, T-Mobile dials Broadway

  1. This is a brave and honest letter about the daily reality of running a small independent business. I salute Suki and Shea for being willing to talk openly about the closing of their business, the struggle to maintain it and the honorable way that they ran it.

    Part of the reason that we see a huge influx of food and beverage business on the Hill is an investment model that is commonplace in food biz but not in retail. And keeping your inventory healthy in a retail environment means having the capital to have a lot of cash sitting on the shelf every day. Not being able to be the store that you want to be because you cannot afford to keep your stock up is a terribly painful place to be – but its a battle that most small retailers face daily. Not to mention that the way people buy things – and shopping as a social or entertainment value prospect – has changed dramatically with online sales.

    It’s a very complicated set of circumstances. Just remember, if you see a retailer that you like and want in your neighborhood – walk in and buy something.

    Best of luck to all of the staff at bedlambedlam.

    • I agree, and wish them the best of luck. This was not my style of clothes so I am sorry to say I didn’t shop there but it’s a good reminder to visit the stores I love more often. I fear someday in the future the only “local” shopping we’ll be able to do is at bars and restaurants, which sounds boring to me (not to mention fattening).

  2. Since the space was mentioned one note that has rarely been covered is the despicable actions of big stores like QFC around the state in buying up liquor store franchises that might compete with them and killing them. The QFC at Broadway Market did this with the former state liquor store location across the street (long ago Volume Shoe Source). I think that the state should look into all of these and re-authorize every one that was killed in this scum-bag way.

    • Are you just lobbing accusations or is there proof that the two successful bidders in the state run auction of the Broadway liquor store site were connected to Kroger, parent company of QFC?

  3. This probably isn’t realistic or helpful… But I can’t help thinking about how awesome it would be to have a place like BedlamBedlam which was a clothing retailer by day, but turned into a music venue at night. I’m sure zoning laws prohibit such crazy/creative ideas though.

    • The homeowners association definitely wouldn’t let that fly. We already turn our music down after 6, so…
      That being said, creative ideas are always great! ;)

  4. So many people go or try to go into retail and have NO idea what they are doing. They have No education or experience in retail and think that just because they think it is a good idea, it will work. It doesn’t happen that way. You need to learn retail before making a bad mistake. I am sure that there are at least 20 shops on Broadway that will never make it.

    • Kind of insensitive, Michael. I applaud them for trying to provide a service to a group of folks largely ignored by the retail world. Can’t fault them for that!

    • If being qualified was a criteria for entrepreneurship then we wouldn’t have very many entrepreneurs. Lessons that in hindsight seem obvious are not so clear when you’re seeking to launch your first business. The excitement of seeing your dream become real sometimes spurs a rush to action when a realistic assessment of the opportunity might suggest otherwise.

      The upside for the founders is that the lessons learned and maturity gained along the way are valuable, often difficult to get by working for someone else, and can be put to use in future ventures. The founders clearly gained an understanding of the economics of running a bricks-and-mortar retailer and the maturity to make decisions based on an unvarnished assessment of these economics. They are now experienced entrepreneurs. Let’s hope we see another venture from them.

    • Michael, our store has a combines retail experience that likely exceeds you age. We have an MBA associated with the store, people with experience doing sales, receiving. Lack of experience was not the problem, but thanks for your opinion.

  5. BedlamBedlam seems like kind of a very narrow niche store. I’m not surprised they didn’t make it, but still feel bad for the owners as they are obviously very committed to their cause.

    • Calhoun, yes it’s a niche market. That wasn’t our problem though. There are four businesses in Vancouver serving the same niche market as us, yet our nightlife serving that same niche market is about 5 times the size of theirs. Not to mention a million more people live here. And I have a general sense of the kinds of sales similar fully capitalized businesses in the area do.
      Thanks for your sympathy though. ;)

      • I can’t speak to what the goth community is like in Vancouver, but there is a HUGE scene in Seattle, even compared with a lot of larger cities. I think there was definitely a market. It really does seem like it was a cashflow kind of problem. My gothy days are behind me so I never shopped at the store, but I always felt really happy that it was there an I am sad to hear about this!

      • As someone who has lived on Capitol Hill for years one thing I might throw out is that I (and most folks I know on the hill) won’t go anywhere near the Pike/Pine mess. Too many hipster/Frat Guys/Sorority Girls/Business pukes to make even a short evening jaunt enjoyable. We had to stop going to our favorite craft cocktail joint for that reason. I know Seattle has a huge Goth scene and cross-over patronage from Steampunk folk, so perhaps it was the location?

  6. i walk past you guys every day to work. wish it worked out for you differently. any chance you can sell your items on etsy or ebay?

    could selling your clothes online be the miracle?

    best of luck to you.

  7. Pingback: Le Frock owner retires as store plans move onto E Pike | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle