Article from the W a s h i n g t o n P o s t Business Section

“From Past Experience Antiques Shop Owner Benefits from Wisdom of Veteran Entrpreneurs”

By M a r g r e t W e b b P r e s s l e r

In a world where you can buy a hammer 24 hours a day at Home Depotand photocopy your resume at Kinko’s at 3 in the morning. Curzon Hill Antiques in Old Town is an anomaly.

Open just five hours a day, Wednesday through Sunday, it seems like a quaint little shop from the same era as the historic town home it occupies.

But Curzon Hill is, in fact, a thoroughly modern business, if constrained somewhat by the limits of its sole proprietor owner. The store is owned and run by Sarah Hill, 29, who when not operating the store for 25 hours a week is frantically delivering antiques, scooping out new purchases, selling vintage knickknacks on eBay, washing antique linens for her linen service and otherwise making it as much of a 24-7 job as any other hypercharged entrepreneur.

“If you want to have this gorgeous tablecloth to buy, I’ve got to have time to wash it,” she says.

And lucky for Hill, she went into business in an era when there were plenty of resources available to support and guide her. In particular, Hill is one of thousands of entrepreneurs nationwide who has received support, guidance and basic business advice over the years from the Service Crops of Retired Executives, a nonprofit program run by the Small Business Administration.

The program, known as Score, provides aspiring business owners like Hill with free, one-on-one counseling sessions with experiences entrepreneurs, lawyers and accountants on just about any aspect of launching and running a startup.

That guidance proved invaluable to Hill, helping her with big issues, such as what kind of shop to open, to details as small as pricing merchandise.

Eugene Rosen, 80, one of Hill’s two main counselors from SCORE, says that Hill is about as perfect an example as there is of what SCORE volunteers hope to achieve when they donate their time and advice.

“She is one person I can always brag about,” he says.

“When Hill graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1993, she began working in the technical departments of a big company, but computer work left her colds. The good pay and international travel couldn’t compare with the personal charge she had always gotten from history and its artifacts.

She had grown up going to yard sales, church sales and estate sales with her mother, porting over piles of junk in search of a gem. She was especially fond of old porcelain, while her mother collected antique lines and textiles.

Eventually, Hill’s pastime overflowed the limits of hobbying and became a business, almost by default.

“Like any true collector, you eventually realize you can’t keep it all,” she says.

With piles of beloved pieces in the basement of her mother’s Crystal City house, Hill began renting space from an antiques cooperative in Falls Church while she was in college. It was a large building, with many vendors, renting stalls they did not have to staff personally-making it ideal of an absentee owner. The management of the cooperative took care of customers and their transactions.

Right from the start, Hill’s business “paid for itself” she says. So Hill, with her savings in hand, left her job in 1995 to sell antiques. She began by working part time at her stall, hoping to turn the experience into a bigger business.

“It gave me a chance to work three of tour days a week to learn what really makes people buy something,” she says. Among her findings: People are just as interested in the practical us of an antique as in its provenance.

“Functionality is very important,” Hill says-thought people also want to know where the $45 ironstone soup bowl came from and when they were made. She decided to focus her business on small decorative and functional antiques, including some furniture, but carefully choosing items that would be in the price range of a wide assortment of buyers.

On her days off, Hill started doing more research on antiques, taking some continuing education classes on antique porcelain, furniture repair and textiles. She shopped to build up her inventory, and she wrote a business plan.

Then she went to SCORE.

Hill’s grandfather, an entrepreneur in Omaha who worked as a SCORE volunteer, had told her about the program. As soon as she hooked up with Rosen, her ideas got traction.

Though never an entrepreneur himself, Rosen had founded and run the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s small-business program, counseling owners of small and disadvantage companies, so they could better bid on NASA contracts. He began volunteering for SCORE when he retired in 1994.

Hill’s initial intention was to start her own cooperative and rent space to other dealers. The cooperative business had worked for her, she understood it and she thought she could run one. Rosen made her rethink that plan.

“It told her that if she were a real estate person, and knew how to do real estate, then it might work,” Rosen recalls. “But when you’re a landlord, it’s very, very difficult. You have to have liability insurance and this and that, you have to provide water and restroom facilities, and she would not be able to attend to her primary business, which is antiques.”

That was powerful advice that Hill followed. She and Rosen “clicked” right from the start, she says, and that chemistry was important in their mentoring relationship.

“A lot of it was his telling me his personal experiences,” she says.

Rosen also helped Hill find a location a half block off Old Town Alexandria’s main drag of King Street, and helper her with the lease contract. She opened in 1996.

Another SCORE counselor, retired retailer Herbert Robinson, stepped in to help Hill tweak her merchandising efforts.

Hill had always priced her goods be marking up her investment by a set amount.. Robinson, though, told her she should make some things up more and others less, depending on their inherent market value, which made Hill’s business more profitable. He also taught her how to use code on her stickers for she would know instantly what she had investing in a particular piece—important information to have at hand when a customer wants a price break.

At first, Hill lived on her savings and plowed all of the profits back into the business. But for two and a half years, she had been able to pay herself a salary, as well as benefits.

Hill still hunts for products whenever she can, sometimes closing the store to attend and auction. But much of Curzon Hill’s merchandise in now brought directly to the store from people in the area. Some items Hill will buy outright and others she’ll sell on consignment.

Hill’s sales have quadrupled in four years, but the big growth lately has come from repairing and cleaning antique linens, which now accounts for 15 % of her revenue. She says retail sales will always account for the majority of her revenue, but hopes the growth of services will take her to annual sales to about $100,000 in a couple of years.

Services are one of the few areas that Hill can expand, by hiring and training other to do the cleaning work. The store is more difficult to delegate to someone else, she had found.

“People invariably want to know where something came from,” she says. “They want to talk to Sarah.”

Which leaves Hill in her tiny shop five days a week, with her beloved cocker spaniel Joshua for company, surrounded by the antique she want so much for others to love as she does.

On a typical day, she’ll $500 to $700 worth of merchandise, but that could be with as few as five customers, or as many as 30. The slow days are hard, and the busy days are exhilarating.

“That’s what keeps it fun,” she says. “Every day, you’ve got to wonder, is this going to be the $2,500 day?”

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