On each day of Small Business Week, Inc. will spotlight a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies. 

Scale begets sameness. Big companies satisfy but rarely surprise. Small companies, by contrast, are able to stay distinctive. Some are downright odd, reflecting their founders' personalities, passions, and idiosyncrasies. Such businesses tease out smiles and lend their neighborhoods flavor, with every encounter a potential anecdote. Quirky small businesses also tend to be among the most beloved. They remind the community: This is a fun place to live.

These businesses stand out for their uniqueness.

Aidan Gill for Men

Rescuing barbershops from decrepitude was not enough for Aidan Gill. He had to make them sexy.

A Dublin native, Gill has plied the tonsorial trade since the 1960s when, at the age of 16, he spied an ad for an apprentice taped to the mirror in a hipster barbershop. He moved from Dublin to London and then, in 1988, from London to New Orleans. At the time, barbershops in the United States were typically tiny, low-priced operations manned by a septuagenarian proprietor. Barbers earned a pittance and consequently made no investments in their shops. "They were not the kind of place someone who cared how they looked would go," Gill says.

Gill's first act upon launching Aidan Gill for Men in 1990 was to send to London for his collection of Victorian-era barber chairs and collectibles. By 1999, when he moved to a larger shop in the French Quarter, Gill had amassed what he says is one of the nation's largest collections of barbershop memorabilia and antiques. Today half the shop is a museum, comprising thousands of razors and sharpeners, mirrors and shaving mugs, posters and advertisements, as well as an ascent of man-type display of barber chairs from the 1850s to the 1960s.

The museum section also incorporates retail: grooming products, of course (Gill produces his own label), but also watches, cufflinks, pocketknives, razors, bow ties, and books on etiquette. The assortment reflects the store's tagline: "Unapologetically Male."

That philosophy extends into the work area where, with the exception of some of the barbers, women's presence is frowned upon. Gill has designed the shop to feel like a club or sanctuary. Here men enjoy the camaraderie of other men, swapping stories while quaffing a free pint of Guinness or shot of Irish whiskey.

Gill is proud of his haircuts but rhapsodic about his shaves. The process, conducted in a private room, takes 30 to 40 minutes and uses a Gillette  Mach3 Turbo blade and the store's own shaving cream and oil. An antique steamer produces "red-hot, burn-your-fingers towels," Gill says. The experience, he adds, is "like the New Jerusalem."

Gill keeps prices competitive--haircuts and shaves are each $40--to avoid becoming a redoubt for the wealthy. The eight-employee business, he says, attracts "policemen and punks and priests and lawyers." Gill no longer comes in every day. But when he does, "I want to meet all the characters."

Gill himself is a bit of a character, with his gentle brogue, natty bow ties, and impolitic candor. At the slightest prompt, he'll veer off topic to recount the practices of 12th-century barber surgeons, the role of World War I in the adoption of safety razors, and the time Hunter Thompson came into the shop, poured whiskey on top of wine, and talked about becoming a writer.

"In order to bring barbershops back from extinction, we had to make the shop and the whole trade more interesting," Gill says. "Blowing my own trumpet, this is one of the most interesting shops in America."

Starlandia Creative Supply

In one of Clinton Edminster's favorite Portlandia sketches, celebrated street artist Shepard Fairey extracts broken doll heads from a box during a commercial for the faux business Shocking Art Supplies. "I thought, that is brilliant!" Edminster says. "Where can I go when I need a broken baby doll's head?"

In 2015, Edminster answered his own question by opening Starlandia Creative Supply, in the Starland district of Savannah, Georgia. Named after TV's cult celebration of Pacific Northwest quirk, the three-employee business has a serious purpose: to help people make art cheaply while reducing waste.

Edminster, who grew up working on his father's fishing boat in Alaska, moved to Georgia in 2008 to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After dropping out, he started a nonprofit to support local art and artists.

While studying at SCAD, Edminster had observed a pernicious cycle. Students spent large sums on art supplies at the start of each quarter, only to abandon them at the end--often scarcely used--by roads, in trash cans, and in alleys around town. Artists, he figured, "could do pretty well just using the leftovers from SCAD students."

Edminster had made some money at age 14 when he persuaded his parents to invest in Apple stock three years before the iPhone. With it, he opened a "reclaimable" art supply store. People exchange their unused paper, paints, and markers for store credit (roughly 30 percent of what Starlandia will resell it for). About 20 percent of inventory is new. "We want to make sure you can come to Starlandia and get all the supplies you need," Edminster says.

With a tiny tube of high-end oil paint costing as much as $30 when new, savings north of 50 percent matter to ramen-munching artists. The business also sells bags of tapped-out pencils, paints, and other items for $2. "It's like a subprime mortgage," says Edminster. "We package a bunch of crappy art supplies in one place and slap a low price on it."

The most Portlandia-esque section of the store is Found Objects. Spatulas, carpet remnants, mattress springs, and other random bits are sold for incorporation into ...  whatever. Not long after launch, Edminster stumbled across a heap of broken bicycle tires and put 20 out for sale. "Two hours later, someone came in and bought them all," he says. "She said she was going to use them for a store display on Broughton Street."

And, yes, at one point Starlandia had in stock eight bags of broken baby doll heads. All have been sold.

Edminster's current challenge is finding space in his small store--painted garish pink, purple, and yellow--to offer art classes and workshops. "I feel like I have this golden egg of an idea," he says. "All I have to do is make sure not to drop it."

Bookstore Movers

It's not surprising that academics gravitate toward a business called Bookstore Movers. In the company's early days, especially, crews were both well-muscled and well-read. "I've had conversations with clients about Sufi poetry," says founder Matt Wixon. "I remember one particularly interesting conversation about Edgar Allen Poe--his tragic life and mysterious demise."

Today, Bookstore Movers' 90 employees are less likely to chat up clients about the new translation of The Odyssey. Although many are writers and artists, the company's calling card is excellent service rather than intellectual discourse. Still, both the past and future of this Washington, D.C., business are intimately conjoined with literature.

In the mid-2000s, Wixon was slouching unenthusiastically toward academia ("everyone in my life assumed I would become a college professor"), when as a "procrastinatory measure," he took a job managing rare book sales at a store called Capitol Hill Books. Wixon and two colleagues loved the store and talked to the owner about buying it when he retired. In 2005, they launched the moving business to make money toward that acquisition. They recruited their first employees at wine and cheese soirees held at the shop.

"We did not expect the moving company to be all that successful," says Wixon. "We thought we'd just pick up a smattering of jobs." But he found he loved the work. "It was so clear when you had had a good day. Most work isn't like that," he says.

Although many early clients--among them D.C.'s professorial class--were attracted by the name, the business soon became known for service. Employment is part time and provisional at first, so management can observe movers' attitude, friendliness, and sensitivity before committing. New hires undergo extensive training, which includes workouts on an obstacle course interspersed with role-play that simulates difficult conversations with both customers and colleagues.

There are still people at Bookstore Movers who can answer customers' questions about how to value antiquarian books, donate their collections, or track down particular titles. "It is just a fun little side thing we do," says Wixon.

Capitol Hill Books' owner is retiring this year, and Wixon and three partners are preparing to finally buy it. Wixon has continued to support that business, hauling books for it and storing rare volumes in his warehouse. Once the acquisition is complete, he plans to set up a satellite office at Bookstore Movers' headquarters where a store employee can evaluate rare books.

He will also use the moving company's marketing materials to promote Capitol Hill Books. "We interact with a lot of people, and there are a lot of little ways we can make people aware of its existence," Wixon says. "The bookstore is an idiosyncratic, special place."

 

Published on: May 4, 2018