shop talk | Dec 21, 2023 |
Retail is just one arm of the empire for these Baltimore shop owners

In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with Christopher Heller and Ryan Sirois Heller, the partners (in business and life) behind The Margaret Cleveland, a home and garden store in Baltimore.

Retail is just one arm of the empire for these Baltimore shop owners
Chris Heller and Ryan Sirois HellerCourtesy of Helium Creative

Name a creative pursuit and it’s likely the Hellers have tried it, and possibly made a business of it. Their design and branding studio, Helium Creative, was founded in South Florida and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in January. They opened a pop-up in Fort Lauderdale, and years later, when they were living in Baltimore, the pair began researching what would become their retail store—and Christopher’s passion project—The Margaret Cleveland, which opened in fall 2022. Within the retail property, Ryan operates his own passion project, a wellness space dubbed Playform, which hosts healing ceremonies and gatherings.

In spring 2023, they expanded to another retail space, The Margaret Cleveland at Walther Gardens, which includes a garden center, a nursery and a 101-year-old snowball stand (known as The Peggy). Then there’s Ryan’s large-scale abstract expression paintings; the two historic homes they designed, renovated, and rent out in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and, of course, their 6-year-old twins.

Amid the chaos of the holiday shopping season, and at the close of a wild year for their businesses, the Hellers spoke with Business of Home about balancing it all, emphasizing experiences, and finding someone with whom to follow your passions.

Of all the many creative pursuits you’ve had, why go into retail?
Chris: When I was in high school, I worked at Britches, which was a clothing store, and in college, I worked at Pottery Barn and Abercrombie. Not only did I love the merchandising and the design side of retail, but I also loved the connection with the community and the way community builds around a retail concept. The reason that we’re able to do this successfully—both of us, collectively and as a family—is we’ve followed our passions and [turned] those into businesses. Taking on Walther Gardens, for instance: There were four seasons of changing the whole store, and it fuels me similarly to how Playform does for Ryan. It creates a space of inspiration that then goes back into Helium and into us as a family.

How are you balancing it all?
Ryan: Well, we’re crying every night in the corner eating ramen noodles. No, I think the easiest way to answer that is there’s just been this organic evolution since Chris and I met in 2010. We’ve always been in alignment on wanting to build together—whatever piqued our passions and our curiosity and kept us excited. We’re both creatives, and from [the beginning], we started planning and dreaming together. We focused on building Helium—that’s our core business—and that allowed us the flexibility and freedom to pursue other passion projects along the way. I’ve always had an inclination toward integrative healing and art, so I’ve always been doing that on the side, and he’s always been doing interiors and collecting. You follow your heart and things blossom naturally. I think if you show up in your life and do what you’re here to do and have a partner who is riding the same wave …

Retail is just one arm of the empire for these Baltimore shop owners
The interior of The Margaret ClevelandCourtesy of Helium Creative

Chris: And since our kids were 6 months old, they’ve been coming with us on our discovery sessions, which is part of our process with Helium. What we do professionally and what we do for passion has largely been integrated into our family life. It all weaves together, to which I can attribute the ease.

Tell me about the name of the store.
Chris: Margaret Cleveland is my grandmother. My mother had me when she was 16, so my grandmother Margaret and great-grandmother Peggy were very influential women in my life. They were collectors from their world travels, which inspired my design aesthetic. The inspiration from my mother was the gardening side. The three of them are really what inspired the retail concept.

What is that concept or aesthetic?
Ryan: The overall aesthetic is an eclectic mix of curated finds from our travels. Everything that we have at the store is hand-selected by us. They’re all unique finds.

We recognized that retail is dying. Amazon has hurt the market. From a brand standpoint, we wanted to ensure that there’s a really amazing experience when you’re coming in. Both of our Margaret Cleveland locations have become destinations, in that we’re not on a main street. Walther Gardens is on an acre, with a farmhouse built in 1885. All of our customers are coming to us because they’ve heard of us. We’ve had customers who have driven two-plus hours to see us.

What is an object or a category there that flies off the shelves?
Chris: For the holidays, it’s these hand-made reindeer made from vintage saris. We can’t keep those things in stock.

What are each of your own favorite categories?
Chris: I’ve always loved Campo de’ Fiori pottery, but I’ve always joked that the only way to get the line is to own a garden center. When Walther Gardens fell in our lap, I was able to finally carry it. And tropical plants inspire me, from my 20 years in South Florida. A lot of our furniture is European—old pieces that are sandblasted so that the details are really brought out. Oh, and the artist that we showcase, in addition to Ryan’s art, her name is Joan Rasmussen. We found her at the Coconut Grove Arts Festival probably 15 years ago.

Ryan: I’m a glutton for anything that looks like it came out of a Gothic church. Santo dolls, religious figures and old gilded artifacts are my jam. Or I have these great imported Moroccan poufs, and I always have a soft spot for crystal.

What is your e-commerce strategy like?
Chris: We’re using Shopify, and every piece of product that we have is on there. However, I haven’t turned the store “on” yet officially, but somehow people seem to get to our store. We currently don’t have an e-commerce strategy, in the sense that we don’t have an online store officially launched, but it will be next year.

What I’ve been trying to do is meld and merge e-commerce with brick-and-mortar. For instance, I did a presale to incentivize people to buy their Christmas trees early with a discount. Then we had a Christmas tree event the day before Thanksgiving, where it was really a gathering, with hot chocolate and music.

Retail is just one arm of the empire for these Baltimore shop owners
The interior of The Margaret ClevelandCourtesy of Helium Creative

What is the Baltimore design scene like? Are there many other home stores?
Chris: What attracted both of us [to Baltimore] from a very young age is that it’s an art-centric scene. As creative directors, as artists, it was a natural fit for us. There are other home stores, other garden stores, and other art galleries, but I don’t think anyone in the city connects all the pieces like we do. That has led to our very quick success in the city; we’re combining so many areas that everyone loves.

What are the challenges of operating there, whether about design or commercial rents or other market concerns?
Chris: To touch on rent—we were in FATVillage [Arts District in Fort Lauderdale]. There was a situation where we helped build that area, and I wanted to buy because I was tired of paying rent, and they came to me with this insane number. From that point on, I decided that I’ll never pay rent. I wanted to own the asset that we were in, because of how we approach things: We invest a lot of time and money into making sure that the property itself really curates the overall experience. So it’s much more efficient to have ownership of that versus paying rent.

Here, the city has to approve renovations because the Bolton Hill shop is a historic property. Any renovations are a serious challenge, but we’re always trying to honor the integrity of the history of the space. It just elongated our process. But otherwise, no [challenges]. Baltimore’s been a fabulous place to have both of our shops.

How have you organized your staff? Are there any who work on the multiple ventures at once, as you both do?
Chris: Ryan and I are the main people behind Helium, and we work with a designer. All of the sourcing comes from Ryan and me. Most of the merchandising comes from me, and then we have staff that support the store. Because it’s a passion project, I want to make sure that whoever is [in the store] is sharing the magic—not only within the experience that we want a guest to have, but also [in being] thoughtful in how they’re approaching whatever it is that they’re doing, whether it’s customer-facing, or behind the scenes.

Retail is just one arm of the empire for these Baltimore shop owners
The exterior of the shopCourtesy of Helium Creative

You’ve launched so much in recent years. What are you hoping to do next?
Chris: Well, Walther Gardens historically closes at Christmastime and reopens April 1st. So, we have three months to further build out that location. On the property, there’s an 1885 farmhouse, a greenhouse, four shipping containers, five other outbuildings that are all part of the retail [experience], and a residential house the former owners lived in—but I just got approval to zone that for retail.

Next year, it’s ready to build out. We want to lean into the art side, and we want to get a food and coffee component to continue to enhance the experience as a destination. I truly believe that the more you have to offer, the more you [build] a wider community. There’s something for everybody.

What’s your favorite day as shop owners?
Chris: The day that I’ve changed over for the season. I love seeing the wonder on guests’ faces, like when we transform for Christmas and have all the Christmas trees and decorations and poinsettias.

Ryan: I love when it gets crazy and there’s a ton of people there, and there are kids running around and people exploring and curious and turning stuff over. It’s magical to watch this whole compound come to life. Yes, it means something to us, but it means something different to each person who’s interacting with the store. You can watch that like a performance.

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