Eclectic artisan shop uses pandemic downtime to power up web outreach
For Stephanie Swaim, opening her own shop featuring her handmade art alongside the works of other local artisans was a dream come true. She was not going to let the pandemic shutdown turn it into a nightmare.
“I’ve made jewelry, fiber art and other things with my own hands for as long as I can remember,” said Swaim. “To be able to have my own store and sell those things, and to help support others and bring in other makers in the area – it’s been a passion for so long.”
Right time, right space
A few years after the Virginia native moved to West Virginia, she found both opportunity and inspiration.
“A friend previously had this shop space. She was moving her business down the street and hated to see this space empty,” Swaim said. “She said I should think of opening my own business there. That’s all I could think about for two weeks. I was never going to feel ready to actually do it, but it was just time to jump. So I did.”
In 2018, Swaim opened her shop on 245 Walnut Street in Morgantown. Hoot and Howl carries an eclectic mix of unique creations from more than 180 artists, and American-made small businesses, as well as vintage items.
“It’s an ever-changing shop. We get new products in almost every day,” Swaim said. “Frequent customers ask, ‘What’s new this week?’ Those who have been away for a while say ‘Goodness, it looks so different from the last time I was in!’”
Swaim ran the shop with the help of friends who pitched in to help with merchandising and special events.
“I didn’t know the shop would get such a positive response from the community,” she said. “That first Christmas season was much busier than I had expected!”
In 2020, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 swept around the world. It spread across West Virginia as well. In March, the state government issued stay-at-home orders and the shut-down of nonessential businesses to close in the interests of public health.
Before the mandate was issued, Hoot and Howl had already decided to close the doors for their own safety and that of their customers. Instead of waiting on customers in person, Swaim decided to expand the store online.
“We had a website already but had not added many items to it. We started to create a whole new business online, adding the items we carry along with new items we were able to acquire from our featured artisans,” she said. “We took a ton of pictures and made so many listings to get all of the unique items on there.”
Connecting with resources
A client of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WV SBDC), Hoot and Howl was able to connect with additional resources.
“Our local WV SBDC Business Coaches Sharon Stratton and Frank Goldsborough are extremely helpful when you reach out with questions,” Swaim said. “They were a great help with filling out paperwork for the Paycheck Protection Program Small Business loan. They are always forwarding along any webinars or trainings that are being offered. I highly recommend them to everyone that mentions opening a business to me.”
Swaim has expanded the outreach of Hoot and Howl website by maintaining a strong social presence in the community. She makes a regular practice of posting as new works arrive at the shop. The artists themselves share with their friends about their items featured at Hoot and Howl, and the artists’ friends often share as well. Swaim has often attended artists’ shows and pop-up parties to express support. Hoot and Howl has also added its social media muscle to support local events such as art walks and the annual Small Business Saturday in November.
“We still manage the website,” she said. “We’ve been shipping all over the country!”
Come In, We’re Open campaign
The West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WV SBDC) created a campaign called the Come In, We’re Open” (#WeAreOpenWV) to help entrepreneurs spread awareness that they are still here and ready to do business.
Hoot and Howl has added its voice to cause.
“Small businesses are the backbone of every community. They are run by your neighbors and your friends,” she said. “It’s all about community. I joined the campaign as a call to action for our local customers and community to continue supporting all of the small businesses in our state.”