Nanci Solomon, owner of Rala in Knoxville, TN, has been a boss mom to many, many small businesses, including mine. It's kind of been her thing. Step 1: hire creative and driven employee. Step 2: train them on everything she knows about running a small business. Step 3: Give them the space to cut down a day at a time until they have created their dream job!
In 2010, I was studying art at the University of TN and I left my part-time corporate retail job to work for Nanci at both Rala, a handmade goods and local art store and at Reruns, a consignment clothing store. After graduating, I found myself like many others who opted for a creative degree instead of an oh-so-useful accounting degree: scrambling. With more time on my hands, I began taking on more responsibility at Rala as well as dabbling in making clothing for myself. The things I was making caught the attention of Knoxville's very first Fashion Week, and they asked me to showcase my work in early 2012. I made a collection, showed it to the world, and sold the pieces at Reruns. In the wake of making an entire collection from scratch, I began making smaller goods as Christmas gifts for friends - these goods would evolve into the first line of Cold Gold products.
By this time, I was working with Nanci as a buyer for Rala. I learned about price points, wholesale policies, consignment, and best practices for a small business. Through that education and Nanci's encouragement, knowledge, and constructive criticism, I started my own small maker business, Cold Gold.
Nanci has continued to be an incredible source of knowledge and support to me through the steps of growing my business into a successful, full-time career. On a recent visit to Rala, I asked Nanci some questions about Rala, Knoxville, and makers.
What led you to start Rala?
NS: “Our sister store, Reruns Boutique, was located at 2 Market Square. As we began to see the growth and popularity of the MSFM we had the thought that it would be nice to have a place where you could find local goods all year long. The space two doors down from Reruns, at 323 Union, was vacant after a long time tenant. In 2010 not many people were interested in opening businesses downtown or in such a small (650 sq ft) space, but it was perfect for us so we decided to open a shop and came up with the name RALA which stands for Regional And Local Artists.”
What's the biggest change, in your store and in Knoxville, that you've noticed over the past 10 years of being open?
NS: “People have fully embraced the revitalization of downtown Knoxville and they are all about supporting local businesses and makers.”
What is the best thing about working with makers?
NS: “Being around the creativity of artists and makers is exciting and inspiring.”
What are some of your customer's favorite things in the store?
NS: “The cards!!! Nothing better than watching people LOL while looking through our card selection.”
What does your dream Knoxville economy look like?
NS: “While continuing to grow, I hope Knoxville remains an affordable place for artists, makers and entrepreneurs to establish themselves and have a good quality of life.”
What is your mantra?
NS: “Work hard, stay consistent, try not to compare yourself to others, and surround yourself with a good team!”
I believe small maker-centric businesses like Rala are our economic path forward. They allow people from all backgrounds to take their income into their own hands. If you think about it, our micro-economy of makers and maker-focused businesses like Rala employ far more people than the largest corporate businesses in Knoxville. Maker businesses pay themselves and their employees more on average and keep a much larger percentage of their earnings in their local economy. So let's hear it for places like Rala being incubators and cheerleaders for the creatives in their communities!