Although as close as sisters can be, Mary Beth and Helen Graham couldn’t have chosen more opposite paths in their first careers. They both graduated from Smith College, three years apart, and – through economic ups and downs, and workplace, and customer challenges – the two have leaned on each other to find their rhythm and passion. They eventually came together to fulfill a dream of running their own business and in the process have discovered the best coworkers they ever could have imagined – each other.
But their stories are their own to start.
Graduating with an English literature degree in 1988, Mary Beth left Smith not sure what she wanted to do when she “grew up”. After a stint in artist management, another at a veterinary front office, and a variety of other temp jobs, her uncle suggested teaching. “He felt I’d have a real aptitude for it and he was right. I loved working with the younger kids, molding their minds. That moment in kindergarten, when you can almost see the metaphorical light bulb switch on when they get reading – it’s a great feeling knowing you had something to do with that!”
She got a Master’s Degree in early education and immediately scored a job teaching kindergarten, first at a local Catholic School in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and then becoming the first teacher of first grade at All Saints Regional Catholic School when it opened in Manahawkin, NJ. Finally, she moved to a local public school.
“I loved teaching and dealing with the kids,” says Mary Beth, “but I got frustrated with the administration and the parents.” Since one of her favorite parts of putting together her classroom at the beginning of the year was finding displays and tools that would spark the children’s imagination and get them involved in learning, Mary Beth thought having a teaching supply store close to the local schools would be good for the teachers, especially as such stores were few and far between.
So, after 12 years of full-time teaching, she opened a very small teacher supply store in Manahawkin, New Jersey. But her grand idea didn’t take off as she had imagined. “I was in a local flea market that was open only on weekends and shoppers come to flea markets to bargain, not pay full price for items. Also, a year after opening the store, I moved to be closer to family and it was a trek to get there for not a lot of return.”
In October of 2004, she closed the store but hung onto the inventory, not quite sure what to do with it.
Meanwhile, like her sister, Helen graduated with a degree in English literature from Smith College in 1991. However, always the more practical of the two, she knew she would need something more to find work so she sought an additional degree in accounting. She stopped just short of taking her CPA exam because she felt becoming a CPA meant more of a permanent commitment to accounting – a step she wasn’t willing to take. “I knew good financial skills were always needed, and I thought I’ll always be able to get a job and decide what I want to be later. I just knew it wasn’t a CPA.”
From what started as a temp job at Mack-Cali, one of the more prominent real estate firms in New Jersey, Helen worked her way up through the ranks of property management, ultimately finding her way to Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of a local real estate company. Very quickly, she realized she was in a male-dominated field and the condescending nature of the interactions with her male coworkers was maddening: “You got the proverbial pat on the head quite a bit when you had a new idea,” says Helen. “I was absolutely miserable.”
After ten years in the field, she realized that “while the money was nice, it wasn’t worth being unhappy all the time.”
At this point the sisters joined up in what would be the inception of their Second Act. It would be a few more years before everything came together fully, but the seed was planted. In early 2005, Helen suggested listing the leftover inventory from the teaching store online on eBay. “We listed some book posters online as a lark, figuring at most we’d lose the 5-cent listing fee. When they sold almost immediately, we started screaming and dancing around!” The rest of the items did not sell quite as quickly (“I think we may still have some of that early inventory tucked away somewhere”), but it did get Helen and Mary Beth excited about the prospects of selling online. “Instead of one small area of NJ, we now had the world as customers.” Encouraged, they continued to buy more wholesale education goods to sell online.
While they maintained the eBay store at night and on weekends, Mary Beth temped at odd jobs to keep a steady salary, and Helen continued to work in real estate. They shared an apartment in Monmouth County, NJ, and constantly strategized on how they could grow the business to become self-supportive.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Mary Beth had already taken the first step by working part time during summers at a retail store on Long Beach Island, which gave her an good idea of what running a brick and mortar retail business entailed – the flow of inventory, the financials, the merchandising, and customer service. And she liked what she saw. “It showed me that you can do something that you really enjoy and work for yourself. You don’t have to have this whole hierarchy over you telling you what to do. You can make your own decisions.”
The possibilities were exciting to both sisters, but they weren’t quite ready to take the next step. Helen was still working full time as a CFO, and Mary Beth realized she had to find full-time work to make ends meet so she became an assistant project manager for a construction company while continuing to work on the online store in their off hours. The sisters dreamed about the time when they could own a brick and mortar store together.
Then, after ten years as a CFO, Helen lost her job: “We kind of knew it was coming so we had started thinking that when it did happen, maybe we could finally open the store.” Unwilling to let Helen have all the fun, Mary Beth quit her assistant project manager position once they found a retail site.
With about eight years of experience buying supplies, marketing them both online and in a store environment, the sisters felt prepared to take the next step. This time around, the inventory would be unique, not school supplies but rather an accessories lifestyle store selling quirky items and whimsical gifts that couldn’t be found in Walmart or Target.
Their store, Toad Hollow, opened in Red Bank, NJ in 2011. The sisters consider their backgrounds a perfect blend to run the store. “We go to the gift shows and I want to buy everything while Helen tells me how much I have to spend,” says Mary Beth. They run the show themselves, without the demands of others or condescending bosses to hold them back. With that has also come professional growth from exploring new challenges together. After years in the cut and dried business world, both sisters are enjoying uncovering their creative sides – decorating the store and even creating some of their own merchandise to sell. And both take responsibility for the more mundane work, like bookkeeping and inventory control.
One thing they can’t control? – the weather and its impact on their business. In their first three years of operation, they’ve survived an earthquake, two hurricanes (one of which was Sandy) and the worst winter in 30 years, but they’re still standing. Business suffered a bit through those times. “After all”, says Mary Beth, “when houses are flooded, people rush to replenish the basics, not luxury items.” But the store is now doing well and they’ve become a fixture in the community. And they feel they’re on the right track. “We know the things we sell aren’t a necessity, and we’re ok with that, but we have things to make the house look pretty and fun. Our inventory are conversation pieces and they make people happy.”
What’s it like to work with your sister? “When you are as close as we are” says Mary Beth, “you don’t have to be as careful as with others. Even though I say things without thinking and ruffle some feathers she never holds a grudge.” Helen adds, “No matter how bad the day gets, we can make each other laugh, which is very important.”
Any regrets? None at all. And one of the best parts of working for yourselves? “Our dogs get to come to the store with us every day.”
- Be sure this is what you want to do. Our mother tells us there are trade-offs in life. When you are first starting out, the store is your life. You don’t get to go to every family function or take weekends off. You very often go for months at a time without a day off because even if you’re not at the brick and mortar location, you’re still tracking inventory online or working on social media.
- Choose your location carefully. We check constantly to be sure no one else in the area is selling the same merchandise we carry. Even if the location looks ideal, talk to other merchants because there are always hidden obstacles.
- Don’t be afraid to change if what you’re doing isn’t working. This may mean changing the type of inventory you carry or picking a new location. Every decision you make can be modified if need be. Just don’t give up.
Questions for Mary Beth or Helen? Post them in the comments below and we’ll get them answered!