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In Acton, a small specialty shop caves to economic pressures

By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2009
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ACTON - Nicole Pinard discovered an affinity for the art of beading the first time she visited Lily's Beads five years ago.

When she wanted to make holiday gifts for friends and co-workers, she relied on the materials and expertise at the Acton store to help her. Nicole's daughter Madeleine held her ninth birthday party at the shop. And when Nicole and her sisters-in-law wanted to get together for a special ladies' night out, they met up for crafting and conversation at Lily's Beads.

So she was saddened to find out last month that the independently owned store on Great Road was closing at the end of January. But customers like the Pinards, though once prevalent, were increas ingly harder to find, said store co-owner Sarah Shieh.

"We opened here five years ago because we saw Acton as a growing community with a lot of young families," Shieh said recently. "We wanted to introduce beading to the community by running a shop that catered mostly to beginners, with the thought that we would grow more advanced in our offerings as our customers did. Our focus has always been on relationships with our customers."

And for the first couple of years, the strategy worked well, Shieh said. "Customers loved us. We held free beading workshops and started a website. People could look at our site for ideas and then come into the store for instruction. It was a very successful model."

But the Internet and the faltering economy became their undoing. Bead vendors can now sell directly to customers rather than going through a storefront, and a small business like Lily's Beads can't compete with wholesale prices, Shieh said.

When their landlord approached them about renewing their lease for 2009, the six friends who started the business together had to take a long look at their recent track record.

"Most of our business comes in October and November, when people are making gifts," Shieh said, and last year those all-important months were not adequately profitable. Sales had declined 10 to 15 percent in 2007 and 2008 compared with their first three years in business, she said, while the cost of materials rose.

The demise of Lily's Beads is typical of the current economy in area communities, said Sarah Fletcher, executive director of the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce.

"If you've got a small shop and a specialty item, there's not a lot of diversity there. You've put all your eggs in one basket. And it's specialty items that people are beginning to cut out of their budgets."

Acton has generally been a promising environment for small businesses. "People in this area are very willing to support local independent stores. They are fed up with malls, which they see as a place for teenagers to hang out," said Willa Breese, who opened her kitchenwares shop, Kitchen Outfitters, just a mile from Lily's Beads in October 2006.

Breese conducted demographic research to figure out where to put her business. She chose Acton, a convenient commute from her Groton home, because, she said, "My target demographic is a family that likes to cook and has the income and education to value better-quality items."

Ironically, just as the Internet has put some small shops out of business, Breese thinks it has helped her; customers find prices for kitchen items online and are pleasantly surprised to discover the same prices in Breese's store.

Besides, said Breese, her customers put an ideological value on shopping locally. "My customers, being interested in cooking, are familiar with the buy-local food movement," she said. "I think that priority has spilled over into the way they shop for other goods as well."

Other small businesses have sustained a successful run in the community as well, including Willow Books, the Fish Nook, and Cambridgewear.

As Shieh sees it, the challenges Lily's Beads faced are somewhat specific to her business.

"We provide something that is simply not a necessity, something that in this economy is likely to be the first thing to go from people's budgets," she said. "People who enjoy beading will spend lots of money on it if they have the money to spend, but it's also a really easy place for them to cut back."

Bead shop owners in some neighboring towns don't necessarily agree.

"The economy has not hurt me at all," said Diana Baranowski, owner of Beadles. Her shop had a grand opening this month to introduce its new storefront in Chelmsford, which at 1,500 square feet is three times the size of its former space in Westford.

Even in an economically hard-hit city like Lowell, bead shops can do well, other shop owners say.

Liz Stewart, who owns Lush Beads, said her regular customers are spending the same amounts they always have. "While it may be true that people look for luxury items they can give up in a bad economy, they also need a creative outlet now more than ever" and are therefore more likely to spend their money on creative activities like beading, she said.

Jenifer Apazidis, who just expanded her Wellesley beading business by opening a second Sweet Beads shop in Lexington, attributes some of her success to a trend of people spending money on activities rather than goods.

"Our classes are doing wonderfully," Apazidis said. "We have monthly ladies' night out workshops, after-school beading sessions for kids age 10-14, and mother-daughter or father-daughter classes. Beading is an inexpensive way to go out and have fun for a few hours."

Shieh and the other owners of Lily's Beads are hoping they can continue to leverage this activities trend even without their storefront. Shieh said they are looking for studio space where they can continue to offer workshops.

Nancy Shohet West is at nancyswest@msn.com.

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