shop talk | Aug 4, 2021 |
Why these Atlanta store owners are all about healthy competition

There’s nothing like getting lost in a great home goods store. It’s a visceral experience, so far impossible to re-create properly online—the kind where every horizontal surface is covered with carefully chosen treasures, mobiles dangle from the ceiling, pillows and textiles beg to be touched, and a friendly store owner pops up from behind the merchandise to answer questions or share the fantastic provenance of the object in your hand. For Business of Home’s new series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and their challenges, big and small—and to ask what they see for the future of small industry businesses like theirs.

Kicking things off are Milton Roberts and Greg Ashby. The pair run Interiors Market, a resource for the Atlanta design community since 1992, featuring lighting, art, accessories, and antiques of every era. Roberts has worked there for decades but took over with Ashby several years ago; in June, they opened a 4,000-square-foot satellite boutique in Miami Circle, a shopping area near the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center. In the new location, which has a particular emphasis on art, an upbeat playlist buzzes through rooms that are staged like a Parisian flat for shoppers who love the thrill of the hunt.

Why these Atlanta store owners are all about healthy competition
A peek inside the new Miami Circle boutique, which is styled to feel like a chic apartment.Courtesy of Interiors Market

How would you describe the vibe of your new store?

Milton Roberts: So different from the flagship Interiors Market on Bennett Street, which is 10,000 square feet of layers and layers of things. This is definitely more curated. You can sit down in a room and experience that stop, and move on to the next. It’s a journey.

Greg Ashby: Here, we have more upholstered furnishings, one-of-a-kind and finer pieces—antique, vintage and new. The statement pieces. We purposely don’t have a lot of signage, so it feels more like a speakeasy vibe. You’re like, “Am I in the right place?” And then you see the elephant and take a left.

Roberts: The wicker elephant outside is giant.

Ashby: And he or she is beautiful.

Who are some of your favorite vendors in this location?

Ashby: We’ve curated Miami Circle to be Milton’s and my voice. We have one vendor, who was an introduction by Daniel Zimmerman, a local designer—

Roberts: He brought us his sister [Amanda Zimmerman, of Velour Willington]. She sells amazing fabrics, velvets and all sorts of things.

Ashby: She did the window treatments in our store. All of her products are made in the U.S.; she has a factory in Tennessee, where she hires local people to make the product. But that’s the only vendor we have [here].

Roberts: This store definitely has a very heavy focus on art. We’re working with a longtime friend, who has I.D.E.A Gallery. And she has amazing relationships with artists locally and throughout the U.S. that are incredible. So we’ve got a lot of really great original art.

What are your favorite products in the store right now?

Ashby [laughs]: It’s slightly embarrassing.

Roberts [points to colorful overhead light fixtures]: So, those lights, right there? Give me life. Beautiful things that Greg and I found in Washington state when we went to see his brother. They’re fiberglass, Australian, wacky things that we turned into lights.

Ashby: When we go see family, we have a habit of seeing them for like three hours in a day, and we spend the other 21 hours shopping. It’s fun to see other areas of the country and how they shop. We always find these odd little things that we bring back to the shop. My favorite thing is a Sputnik [light]. It’s really vintage, which is hard to find at scale. It’s almost 5 feet long, and it’s in pristine condition.

Roberts: Considering you see lots of reproductions, but that one’s actually vintage, it's fabulous.

What’s your relationship like with your landlords?

Roberts: We have a wonderful relationship with both.

Ashby: They really care about what we’re doing, and they want us to succeed. They give us a lot of attention, and anytime that we want to talk, we can. We can sit for an hour and talk about things [like] family.

Roberts: Each has given us lots of good advice—mistakes we could have made, but we didn’t make because we listened to what they said.

Ashby: We pay our rent on time every month. As long as you do that, the relationship’s good.

What advice do you wish you could give yourselves from the very beginning, opening your first location?

Ashby: Patience. You can’t rush anything.

Roberts: A big one is not to over-commit—specifically, to thinking we can take a whole house of stuff, sometimes spur-of-the-moment, and find somewhere to put everything immediately.

Ashby: We’re really bad about saying no, because we’re people pleasers. We see beautiful things and we’re like, “Of course we want that in our store.” But there’s only so much room, even with 14,000 square feet between the two stores.

Why these Atlanta store owners are all about healthy competition
The exterior of the original Interiors Market location on Bennett StreetCourtesy of Interiors Market

What’s the biggest everyday challenge for your business?

Roberts: The logistics of getting things to and from, and the order of how all of this is going to get accomplished. Logistics are always our bottleneck during the day.

Ashby: We start the day, and we have the intention of making delivery. And then, of course, you run the store, someone walks in, and we want to have that relationship with everyone who walks in the door. Then we’re like, “Oh, my gosh, delivery’s supposed to be at 11:00.” We call them, we’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be at 11:30,” and they say, “You know what, it’s going to be at 1:00.”

Roberts: It’s the logistics and it can’t be helped.

What’s the biggest existential challenge?

Roberts: Where’s the economy going, and what is going to happen next?

Ashby: Milton’s worked for Interiors Market since he was 20 years old; we bought it six or seven years ago. But he lived during the recession in 2008, 2009 and 2010. I wasn’t there, so I don’t have this “shoe’s going to drop” thing. Of course, he remembers the bad times, where all of a sudden it just dried up. One day you’re busy, the next day no one came in. But right now, things are great.

What are some Atlanta-specific concerns that you would like people to know about?

Roberts: Atlanta in general—transportation, getting around, is always a thing. There are certain parts of town that are absolutely the perfect storm [because] people are sitting in traffic and they come to your shop because they’re on that road. It can be a big challenge to get people to your store, because it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to go to Collier [Road] because you’ve got to go over Howell Mill [Road] on the north side.”

Ashby: [Our stores] are bookends to ADAC on both sides. Atlanta has so much going for it right now with design. People come into Atlanta to shop: They come from Birmingham, they come from Nashville, they come from anywhere in the Southeast, because they know that they can get furnishings and upholstery. It’s become a total melting pot.

Why these Atlanta store owners are all about healthy competition
A corner of curiosities at the Bennett Street location. Courtesy of Interiors Market

How do you convince customers or designers that they should buy from your store, and not from the internet?

Ashby: If somebody wants to have an experience online, they can. But they can also come into our shop and have a different experience, where you actually are hugging, touching, feeling, looking or exchanging energy. We’re that solution for people who want a little bit more depth.

Roberts: For example, we’ve got a lot of Andy Warhol serigraphs, and you can find them on eBay. The price range is all over the place. Ours are priced at the high end, but we know what ours are—we know that they’re real serigraphs from Rupert [Jasen Smith]’s studio that Andy did in the 1980s. They’re stamped and monogrammed. So that is a selling point: I can say with confidence I know what I’m selling you. And you don’t have that on eBay.

Ashby: And there’s a person, a face behind the name. If you come into Interiors Market, you know you’re going to see Greg or Milton, and we have a very tight team of people that are like family. You’re going to feel like you’re part of the family.

What is the future of small businesses like yours?

Ashby: Flourish! I hope more people get inspired by what we do and also do it, because there’s nothing better than having a community.

Roberts: Healthy competition, we love that. The more we have [around us], the more business we’ll draw. We believe in that.

Ashby: Falling in love with what we do is one of the best love affairs you could possibly have.

Homepage photo: Milton Roberts and Greg Ashby | Courtesy of Interiors Market

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