‘Business shoes in front, party in back’: Two Northampton businesswomen leading charge in co-retailing

  • Essentials owner, Colette Katsikas, left, and Strada owner, Anna Bowen, talk Friday, March 1, 2019, about co-retailing in the space they've shared on Main Street in Northampton since the fall of 2017. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Strada owner Anna Bowen helps a customer in the downtown Northampton space her business shares with Essentials. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Strada owner Anna Bowen, left, comes over to say hi to Essentials owner Colette Katsikas as she arrives back at the retail space they share on Main Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Essentials owner, Colette Katsikas, trims greeting cards she makes in the downtown Northampton space her business shares with Strada on Friday, March 1, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Katsikas, left, and Bowen, talk about co-retailing in the space they've shared on Main Street in Northampton since the fall of 2017. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Katsikas conducts business on her phone in the downtown Northampton space she shares with Strada. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Essentials owner, Colette Katsikas, left, and Strada owner, Anna Bowen, talk Friday, March 1, 2019, about co-retailing in the space they've shared on Main Street in Northampton since the fall of 2017. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Essentials owner, Colette Katsikas, trims greeting cards she makes in the downtown Northampton space her business shares with Strada on Friday, March 1, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Two long-time downtown Northampton businesses, Strada and Essentials, share a retail space at 108 Main Street in Northampton. Photographed Tuesday, March 5, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2019 12:54:43 PM

Strada Shoes and Essentials stationery and gift shop have always shared a similar customer base, according to their owners. But since fall 2017, the two shops have grown dramatically closer: They now share the same roof, with Strada occupying the front of the 108 Main Street space and Essentials covering the back.

Or as Essentials owner Colette Katsikas puts it: “Business shoes in front, party in back.”

The splitting of the store area — which previously housed an antique store briefly and, before that, The Mercantile gift store — is an example of co-retailing, a rising trend in which two or more businesses operate out of the same space.

Like Katsikas, Strada owner Anna Bowen is an alumna of Hampshire College; both attended the school in the early 1990s, although Katsikas graduated later in 2000. Bowen studied photography, Katsikas feminist theory and film/video production. In the mid-90s, Katsikas worked at the natural food store Cornucopia, while Bowen worked at Strada. They knew of each other but didn’t really know each other well.

Then, in late 2016, a mutual friend realized that Katsikas and Bowen were both ready to move on from leases that were about to expire — at the time, Katsikas leased the space for Essentials just down the block at 88 Main Street, while Bowen was leasing a space in Thornes — and suggested that the two businesses might be a good fit. Before the two shops came together, Essentials and Strada were both well-established downtown, with Strada founded in 1994 and Essentials in 1985. 

“It happened really fast,” Katsikas said. “I feel like I’m telling our courtship story … I just knew she was the one.” 

When Strada & Essentials opened at the 108 Main St. space in fall 2017, Mayor David Narkewicz officiated the business union with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Bowen and Katsikas fed each other cake, and Narkewicz pronounced them co-retailers.  

It seemed like a match meant to be. But when their mutual friend first suggested co-retailing, Bowen said she initially had doubts about the idea, as she had been looking forward to leading Strada independently after the shoe store had for years occupied what she calls the “Thornes micro-petri dish.”

Katsikas, meanwhile, knew she wanted to downsize and had long flirted with the idea of co-retailing. She quickly realized that she and Bowen had similar ideas and experience. She also recognized that their personalities complemented each other; Katsikas describes herself as “more of a sing-and-dance lady,” while she said Bowen is “more mellow.”

“I think the high-level energy that Colette brings to the space is really good for retail,” Bowen said. “I know that I can do that, but because deep down I’m an introvert, I appreciate that it comes naturally to her, because that enthusiasm is infectious.”

“She will just come bouncing in with a funny story or a flip of her hair, and we turn up the music, and all of the sudden, it’s just like, ‘This is why we do this,’” Bowen added.

At first, some people found the idea of a shoe store and a stationery shop sharing a space odd, Katsikas said, but to her, Strada immediately felt like the perfect fit for Essentials: It offered the opportunity to partner with a business she was familiar with and trusted, but it was different enough from her own store that their sales would not be in competition. 

At best, Katsikas saw the match as a way to “cut my floor space in half but double my customer base.”

“I sell clothes, accessories, jewelry, bags, all that stuff,” she added, “so I felt like, great, customers can come in to buy shoes, and they’re going to be in the mood to buy a bag to go with those shoes.”

So far, the new location has fostered a significant boost in sales at Strada; Bowen said that Strada saw a 25 percent uptick in sales last year, and it is up 20 percent so far this year.

Bowen attributes some of this success to the Main Street windowfront that she did not always have available in Thornes. She added that she also has noticed crossover sales between the two stores and that she sees some customers “coming in for Colette’s products, and then a shoe catches their eye on the way out.”

Essentials hasn’t seen the same boom in sales, Katsikas said, but she now operates out of a smaller space with less staff, less overhead expenses and less labor. 

“I do less business, but it’s less work,” Katsikas said, “But that was expected for me, so as long as I get to be here in my little home doing my thing, I’m happy.”

‘The future of retail’

For Bowen, the Strada & Essentials partnership not only marked the first time that she had engaged in co-retailing, but also the first time that she had worked with another woman owner. Teaming up  with Katsikas, Bowen said she noted “a level of respect and admiration” that she was not used to in previous business dealings. 

“I did not realize how much sexism existed until I was looking at spaces, negotiating … and I came up against attitudes that really threw me for a loop,” Bowen said, “because I had a male business partner, and, as long as he was there, I was treated in a way that was really different than when I would show up alone.”

Katsikas frequently had worked with other women in the past, but also said that she has noticed “a camaraderie that’s also different” when working with women — “an understanding that’s very different.”

Prior to co-retailing, Bowen said that although there were other women business owners that she looked to as mentors in the Northampton small business scene, it was difficult to find a peer before partnering with Katsikas. 

“Not only do I get my 25 years of experience — I get the advantage of hers,” Bowen said of Katsikas, who has been working in her industry for a similar stretch of time. “So you get 50 years of experience.”

Although Katsikas and Bowen didn’t cross paths at Hampshire, both credited their shared educational background as a significant influence on their careers.

“It launches you on a path that is much like entrepreneurship,” Bowen said of the college’s education model. “It didn’t even define the questions. You had to … figure out the questions and tap into resources.”

“Mostly Hampshire gave me the sense that anything is possible, and I think you need to have nerves of steel to run your own business,” she added. 

Katsikas agreed. “Definitely the entrepreneurial spirit is part of the self-led education,” she said. “I was really used to motivating myself and doing a lot of research anyway, so definitely running your own business is a lot of self-led, self-motivated organization and creativity.”

Co-retailing hasn’t quite caught fire in Northampton outside of Strada & Essentials, but Katsikas sees the business model as indicative of larger shifts taking place among small businesses. 

“I do think that retail in small towns will change in terms of space,” Katsikas said. “I think that a lot of the stores are very much built for the ’80s ... when people weren’t shopping online, they were shopping downtown, and the volume was higher.”

“What we’re looking for is more of what the future of retail will look like,” she added. 

While this future has yet to fully manifest on Main Street, Bowen still sees Strada & Essentials as symbolic of the city as a whole. 

“In Northampton, what would make more sense than two women joining forces to make a space that would be something fun and vibrant?” Bowen wondered aloud. “And, mostly, different.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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