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Newark Life

GrassRoots celebrates 40 years in Newark

Apr 30, 2015 01:56PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Marilyn Dickey met Vonna Taylor when they were both doing volunteer work for Unicef. The year was 1975.

A few months into the friendship, Taylor told Dickey that she was thinking about opening a shop so that she could provide sewing services to customers.

“I told her that I didn’t think sewing would be enough,” Dickey explained. “I said that we could do that and sell handmade things.”

With that comment, the seeds were planted for GrassRoots.

In April of 1975, Dickey and Taylor rented some space in the same building as Peggy Cronin’s dress shop and started selling clothing and gifts. The dress shop fronted Main Street, while customers entered GrassRoots from a small doorway off Horseshoe Lane alleyway. The space was small—little more than 100 square feet— but it was a start.

GrassRoots is still going strong—and celebrating its 40th anniversary in Newark this year. Taylor retired after the first 19 years. Dickey eventually partnered with her daughters, Kristin Short and Joanna Staib. In January of this year, the second generation officially took over the family business, which is one of the mainstays on Main Street. GrassRoots can be counted among a handful of long-enduring Newark stores—Minsters Jewelers, Abbot’s Shoe Repair, Wooden Wheels, and Days of Knights among them.

GrassRoots has long filled a niche in Newark by offering a wide assortment of jewelry, clothing, gifts, pottery and home decor

“We’re kind of unique because we’re a blend of a boutique and a gift store,” explained Short.

It was Dickey who first saw that this kind of store would be perfect for Newark’s business district. Taylor initially favored Wilmington as a location for the first store, but Dickey thought the college town would be a better spot for the kind of boutique that she had in mind.

“When I moved here to Newark,” Dickey explained, “It occurred to me that there ought to be two or three shops like this.”

Dickey’s instincts were right. The shop was a success and a year after opening they moved to a larger location on Main Street.

They made good use of the extra retail space.

“We started carrying more jewelry, pottery, and clothing,” Dickey explained.

GrassRoots settled into another, larger location before making the permanent move to the 4,000-square-foot home at the intersection of Main and Academy streets in 1997. By then, Taylor had retired and Staib and Short had both transitioned into the business from other professions. It would take all their collective efforts to grow the business.

“When we moved to this location,” Short explained, “we were a little nervous. We were moving to what was then the outer edges of the retail district. Now, this is really at the heart of the retail district.”

Dickey and Taylor opened other GrassRoots locations, including one in the Rehoboth Beach area that was open for 19 years. There were also stores in Kennett Square, North Wilmington, and Trolley Square at different times. They currently operate the Newark store and a pop-up shop in Wilmington.

The daughters both say that they learned a great deal about running a business by working alongside their mother, starting with an understanding of the trials and tribulations of being a small business owner.

“The thing that I’m impressed with,” said Short, “is that she has a really good business sense. She didn’t go to business school. She went with her instincts on a lot of things, and we’ve picked up on that, too.”

“Going to shows, watching her buy, seeing her handle the day-to-day things—that’s how I learned,” Staib explained.

The business has continued to focus on many of the same things—clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories, pottery, home decor, and gifts—but the owners have always made a point to keep up with the changing trends.

“I think one of the reasons that the business has been successful is that we have been able to change,” Dickey explained.

“Every year, we have to look at what’s selling and not selling,” Staib explained. “We always have to change and change quick enough so that it doesn’t hurt us.”

Another factor in the success of the store has been its presence in Newark’s vibrant commercial district. The business district has grown significantly over the years.

“The number of restaurants in town is great,” Dickey explained. “That brings in a lot of people.”

The loyalty of customers is another factor.

“We’ve had customers from the beginning who still come in,” Dickey explained.

Each April, GrassRoots holds a ten-day sale that longtime customers look forward to.

Bringing in new products is one of the challenges that Staib and Short welcome. They are now importing Fair Trade products and lines—a line of onyx goods from Pakistan is one example—that have a social impact. They are also carrying Tom's Shoes, which is well known as a product that looks to make a social impact.

Short explained that they have been working on enhancing the GrassRoots website. Last year, they also introduced a mobile boutique, a truck that they use to take inventory directly to potential customers at various community events and festivals.

The first time that they used the mobile boutique was at the Wilmington Flower Market, followed by the Firefly Music Festival last summer. The response was so good that Staib and Short decided to schedule to several other festivals, including Bonnaroo, for 2015.

“We tend to take clothes and jewelry and novelty gifts, but we can put anything on that truck,” Short explained, adding that it’s a good way to reach new customers. “We’re always looking for unique, out-of-the-box things that we can do.”

“They are really taking the business in new directions,” Dickey said proudly. “It’s great. I can’t imagine a stranger taking over. This is something that was created, it has been nurtured. It’s like a third child.”

As GrassRoots reaches the 40-year milestone, another generation of the family is coming on board. Several of Dickey’s grandchildren are starting to help out at the store, just as Staib and Short once did. Perhaps, one day, the business will pass to a third generation.

“Most kids in this family start working here at the age of 13 or 14,” Short said. “Our children all know that it’s an option for them.”

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