May 1, 2012 • Regina Molaro
Creativity, a desire for self-expression and a truly personal touch are ideal attributes for establishing not just a letterpress studio, but also a retail space. When the driving force behind it all is creative visionary designer Suann Song, dreams take flight and ideas transform into reality.
For as long as Song can remember, she’s had a love affair with all things paper. For years, her hobby was creating thank-you notes and birth announcements for grateful friends and herself. What began as a leisurely pastime evolved into a design blog – http://simplesong.typepad.com – in 2006 when she decided to leave her job in public relations and event planning to stay at home with her newborn son, Ike. The blog, which celebrates design, focuses on things Song finds personally inspiring – be they crafty, handmade or just simply beautiful.
The blog became the foundation for Song’s own design business and eventually, her own Alexandria, Va., boutique. “I didn’t really think I’d develop a following with the blog,” Song humbly explained, although the blog attracted so many fans, it eventually landed on the “50 of the world’s best design blogs” list from The Times (London).
As the blog grew, so did Song’s output. In 2006, a letterpress class inspired her to continue designing and creating stationery. “It was an eight-hour class, but I knew within the first hour that this was something that I wanted to do.”
This grew from hobby to side business, and by 2008, Simplesong Design was born. Specializing in letterpress pieces for weddings, business collateral and occasion stationery, the brand’s style can be described as “simple and classic with touches of whimsy.”
Dreams Come to Life
Like many letterpressers, at first Song sold her cards on Etsy and then from an online store on Simplesong Design’s website. However, September 2011 found Song opening her cozy brick-and-mortar at 1511 King Street in Alexandria’s Old Town neighborhood. Fifteen/Eleven purveys a carefully curated selection of vintage-inspired paper goods and well-designed products. “I’ve always run my business very organically. If it felt right, I did it,” Song recalled.
The entire space, which is approximately 1,800 square feet, is shared with two other complementary businesses – Kate Headley Photography and Ritzy Bee Events. Simplesong operates from just 300 square feet of it. “I’d been in our by-appointment studio for about a year and had the opportunity to take over the lease of the entire building with (my) studio mates. Expanding our space to retail just made sense. It’s a small shop, but a dream come true.”
Fifteen/Eleven is located on a quaint street in a historic district just a short drive from Washington, D.C. Situated in a row of townhouses, it’s a peaceful oasis where stationery and design blog fiends can go to touch, appreciate and truly experience exceptional paper.
Fine stationery dominates the retail mix, but gift selections include canvas-covered notebooks and chic yet functional office supplies. Masking tape retails for $4, a boxed card sets for $18. An average gift is $40. Curating the merchandise mix for such a cozy space is quite a task. “We are very careful selecting every single piece. Most come from independent designers or small brands we love,” Song said.
The airy shop caters to women who are in their 20s or 30s, and appreciate superior design, quality paper and the fine art of letter writing. “We specialize in brands that are often seen online, but not necessarily found in your average paper shop.”
As for atmosphere, Song yearned to establish a space that people could come to explore their creativity and take a break from hectic schedules. “People come here and hear my story and they find it very inspirational. That’s one of my favorite parts of the store – that personal connection.”
Ever since opening, the shop has received a positive response from design savvy customers and paper lovers alike. “People just love the shop. I absolutely love every single thing that we carry and seeing how much others love it is such a great feeling,” Song noted.
Although Fifteen/Eleven has its share of competitors – both online and brick-and-mortar – this proprietress has conjured up many innovative ways to differentiate hers. “Fifteen/Eleven’s space really fosters creativity. The studio/shop is very much a collaborative environment and it’s helped all of the businesses grow.”
Of course, developing personal relationships goes a long way in luring and retaining satisfied consumers. “One thing I love about the shop is that I see everyone who comes in. It’s important that I’m here – even if I’m not ringing up sales – just to say hello.”
Since the shop was borne via blog, the savvy entrepreneur uses social media to promote it. These include blogs, Twitter, Facebook and online pinboard Pinterest.
“Our online friends are so supportive and help us spread the word,” Song said. “It’s been fantastic to meet so many people in person who we’ve met online via blogs and Twitter. Ritzy Bee Events also has an amazing online presence, 10,000 followers on Twitter, and its proprietors, Maria Cooke and Kelly Seizert, always help us promote anything related to the shop.”
Of course, promotions and special events also boost Fifteen/Eleven’s profile and generate buzz. Within the first two months of its launch, Song offered a discount for those who followed her on Twitter or Facebook. Occasionally Song offers discounts for “Facebook check-ins.”
Beyond its wares, Fifteen/Eleven also offers a studio environment that encourages self-expression via workshops in photography, letterpress, calligraphy and other pursuits – all of which tend to sell out in a day or two. The boutique even hosts select promotions entitling attendees to a 15 percent discount that are valid the day of class. “We love the opportunity to open up our shop/studio to people in the community who want to get creative for a few hours on a Saturday morning.”
Space isn’t the only thing that Fifteen/Eleven shares with Kate Headley Photography and Ritzy Bee Events; shared resources go a long way in boosting everyone’s business. Clients like brides-to-be enjoy being able to shop so much under one roof.
Song’s dreams have certainly taken flight, and she looks forward to exhibiting Simplesong Design at National Stationery Show and shopping it for Fifteen/Eleven. Although the entrepreneur is enjoying watching her businesses grow and evolve, no other store openings are planned.
“Since Fifteen/Eleven is just a component of our overall business, it’s just about all we can handle right now,” Song concluded. “I also love the intimacy of our shop and being able to meet our neighbors and anyone who comes in. We wouldn’t have those opportunities if we had other locations.”
Quick Q&A: Suann Song
Q. There are some things that are timeless – a little black dress or the perfect martini come to mind. What epitomizes “timeless” for you when it comes to stationery?
A. A simple thank-you note.
Q. With new stationery designers cropping up daily, how do you recognize the talented entrepreneurs among the hobbyists?
A. I look for overall quality, selection and presentation.
Q. What are your three top-selling vendors?
A. Rifle Paper Co., Dee & Lala and Simplesong Design.
Q. What have you learned about running a stationery business in the last year that’s surprised you?
A. For the retail portion, we’re always thinking ahead, and that’s taken a little getting used to. For example, we’re placing Valentine’s Day orders during the Christmas season.
Q. If you were a stationery product, what would you be?
A. A simple, crisp set of letterpress-printed thank you cards on extra heavy stock.
Q. What is the best buy under $50?
A. Our favorites include the Delfonics ballpoint pen ($10) and “No Whining” postcard by Hammerpress ($5).
Q. What is the best splurge item?
A. Custom stationery. Our curated selection of custom stationery designed and printed by Simplesong ranges from $250 to $350. It’s our favorite gift to give.
-Regina Molaro, special to Stationery Trends