I’m fascinated by owner-run small businesses, especially in retail. I love to see what people’s passions are, what shops are viable, what niche makes commercial sense.
I like stationery so I’m always drawn - excuse the pun - to stores selling pens and paper. When I was in New York last week, I headed to CW Pencils on the city’s Lower East Side. As the name suggests, this is a pencil shop. It doesn’t sell a range of notepads or pens. It sells pencils. Pencils from as far afield as India, pencils from as near as Jersey City.
Founder Caroline Weaver - an amateur pencil collector but lifelong pencil lover - told me whilst she always had a passion for pencils she admitted she wasn’t sure how popular her store would be, would it turn out to just be her sitting in the shop alone?
But a year after launching, the shop is busy and she even has a team working for her selling online. It’s a great success!
As I sat drinking coffee down the road in Café Henrie, I took out my new pencil and scribbled down a question, “What is it about CW Pencils that makes it a success?”
I concluded there are a number of ingredients that make Caroline’s business idea work. First, the business is a mix of online and offline. That’s an obvious point, but with limited opening hours and an off-the-grid location, it’s important to reach a wider audience. Second, the founder is passionate about what she sells. She told me she’d always loved pencils, and what better foundation for a business than that. Third, she’s confident that selling just one thing - pencils - will be enough. Business advisors may have suggested she stocks books or other stationery items to make her shop more commercially viable. But that would have diluted her proposition; instead - by sticking to one thing - Caroline has a niche idea that stands out. She’s doing one thing well.
As Caroline says on her site, “as simple as it may be, the pencil is something which despite advances in technology will never become obsolete.” Here’s to the power of pencils!