Retail Shop Makes Busy Family Life A Little Bit Busier

DEEP RIVER — In the past six months, Erin Smith and her husband, Mat Seymour, have:

* Opened a retail store

* Had a third child

* Continued to work a hodgepodge of part-time jobs that keeps their family of five afloat in their home in Old Saybrook.

Oh, and they home school their 10-year-old and 6-year-old daughters.

While it might seem like launching a business at this time in their life is odd timing, the couple hoped by being their own bosses they could simplify their work lives.

Smith and Seymour are refining their vision of what their 800-square-foot store is going to be. It's currently called Lady Chatelaine's Too, after Erin purchased the inventory of Lady Chatelaine's, a vintage and antique store in Willimantic that didn't last a year.

Smith's mother ran Lady Chatelaine after her first business, the Mansfield General Store, didn't make it.

Lady Chatelaine's Too still sells vintage hats and clothes and antique and restored furniture, but the couple are pivoting to a concept that includes art classes and crafts sales, and will rebrand the store as the Connecticut Valley Artisans' Depot.

They've recently bought a kiln and a potter's wheel and are planning on offering pottery classes as well as arts and crafts classes for children.

Smith said she hoped that the art classes will "help increase the profit from this, which has been an issue. None of us are making any money at this."

Smith and Seymour do have allies in the effort to launch the store. Smith's stepmother, Nina Ward, and local artist Anne McElroy are both contributing to the rent and covering one day each of the store's operating hours for no pay.

Both Ward and McElroy use small rooms in the building to make art, and they will teach classes this spring.

Seymour also makes items to sell in the store. He makes furniture from recycled pallets — a kitchen island, benches, stools, wine racks, a hat rack and more. They also buy furniture from estate sales, refurbish them and sell them.

In September, October and November, they had enough sales to cover the cost of the rent, if not pay anyone, but there was no Christmas rush, and the winter was been dead.

"It is a lousy location for a retail shop," Smith admits. While it is a few doors down from a garden supply store, most of the other businesses nearby are more industrial, such as a wholesale bakery and a manufacturer of boat covers and custom boat accessories.

In the late afternoon on a recent Friday, there was just one browser, and no sales. The customer said she had stopped by when they first opened, and since she had been at the garden center, decided to come in again.

It's not in Deep River's downtown. But Smith said the landlord has offered a fair rent and the flexibility of not signing a lease until they figure out if they can make a go of it. She and her husband each work for the industrial park landlord part time: She does bookkeeping and he does maintenance.

He also works as a music teacher a few hours a week, and they're both in a band together. They said they wanted to open the store because it's their dream to work for themselves.

"We're learning as we go, which is a bit expensive right now," Seymour said. He said they need to at least double their sales to get to a point where the shop contributes some income, rather than draining resources.

Lady Chatelaine's has a mishmash of items. In addition to furniture, vintage clothing and jewelry, they're selling handmade wooden cutting boards and kitchen tools, handmade jewelry, art of various kinds, and homemade chocolates. But that last item, which was one of the few steady sellers this winter, might be going away, as the woman who made it in Willimantic is considering whether the cost of renting space in a commercial kitchen is worth it. She got a part-time job at Home Goods.

"Oh, please, everybody loves that chocolate!" Smith said she told her.

Lady Chatelaine's Too, 500 Main St. Deep River, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. top 4 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. (860) 322-4662