Follow the pastel rainbow down the stairs and through a cheerful patio and you’ll find yourself inside Riley Grae, a small, bright shop on the Corydon strip and the newest addition to a growing trend of local makers settling into brick-and-mortar businesses.
Riley Grae is owned and operated by Trish and Lauren Wittmann, a mother-daughter duo with years of collective experience in the handmade retail scene.
Lauren, 21, learned how to sew from her grandma and started frequenting community centre craft sales at 15, when her collection of handmade stuffed animals and upcycled clutches became too large to keep at home.
"My first show was with my grandma. I never did feel like I did fit in super well with those, there was like Tupperware and older ladies selling doilies," she said.
"You were 15, but your esthetic was way beyond its years," Trish added.
Eventually, she moved on to larger markets, such as Luckygirl Pop Up and Third + Bird, and added jewelry, greeting cards and screen-printed T-shirts to the mix — one of her bestselling items is a shirt she designed that features a stylized Peter Nygård in his now-classic crossed-arm pose.
Despite her success at local pop-ups and in the online sphere, Lauren’s ultimate dream was to open a physical store. A dream that paired nicely with her mom’s career goals.
Trish, 49, is a nature photographer and no stranger to the retail world. She worked with the owners of dconstruct for years, attending trade shows around the world and helping run the eco-friendly jewelry business, until she decided it was time for a change of pace.
Where Lauren, a graphic designer by training, is the creative force behind Riley Grae, Trish adds experience and business acumen.
"Those are my strong points, being Type A, organized and, when you work in retail for 25 years, you get to learn the ins and outs," Trish said.
The basement shop at 729 Corydon Ave. is hard to define because it’s more than just a retail space.
The white walls are brought to life by a whimsical mural and colourful stock that includes handmade stationery, cards, art prints, jewelry, bags and stickers, as well as new and vintage clothing designed and repaired by Lauren.
"Some of the things here are local, but I wanted to bring in other makers that I’ve seen and liked when I’ve travelled or that I’ve followed on Instagram for a long time," Lauren said. "I really want these things to be available in the city."
The women are also testing out a zine library, a new-to-Winnipeg concept that allows customers to peruse a selection of zines and art books while they shop. Comfortable indoor and outdoor seating areas invite people to slow down and stay a while.
"It’s not often you have a seating area in a retail store, this is valuable space, but we just like the idea of a relaxed and chill atmosphere and a community space, hopefully," Trish said.
On the shop’s first day open to the public, the owners of Riley Grae were already thinking about future possibilities. Ideas being mulled include screen printing and crafting workshops, pop-ups for local makers and live music — Lauren and her sister are in a band and their dad, Darren Wittmann, is a member of the Dust Rhinos.
But with all of that potential also comes a fair amount of risk.
"I’ve never had to worry about stocking other vendors before, so ordering and keeping track of all that is going to be new," Lauren said. "It definitely is (a risk), but I’ve always loved anything analog… so I think having a storefront will always feel more right."
She is apparently not alone in that sentiment. In the past year, Winnipeg has seen a handful of entrepreneurs and makers taking their goods from online spaces and pop-up markets to the shelves of a fixed address, such as clothier Jill Sawatzky of Tony Chestnut and the kid-focused makers behind Mothership, both located in the South Osborne area.
Sandra Altner, chief executive officer of the Women’s Enterprise Centre, believes this return to physical storefronts is part of an international trend.
"Some traditional retail was closing or going online and then the realization that while online had a great deal of convenience and accessibility... there was something missing, so we’re seeing the pendulum swing back a bit," Altner said. "You can’t smell anything online, which is why candle shops still exist."
What was missing from online shopping was human interaction and a connection with the product, two things that are in vogue among younger shoppers who, like Lauren, value community and a curated shopping experience.
"I know it’s trickier because you have to leave your house and park and come in, but to me it’s worth it to come into a shop and see all the touches and how thoughtful they are," Lauren said.
While online shops and market sellers don’t have to deal with the overhead of a lease, the daily grind of opening hours or the ongoing maintenance, running a store does have its perks.
"It gives you greater visibility in the local sense and in some ways greater credibility because you’ve got a mailing address and a place with four walls," Altner said.
Lauren and Trish are feeling excited and optimistic about the future of Riley Grae, if not a little exhausted from all the work it took to open the doors.
A grand opening event is planned for Aug. 17, which will include snacks, drinks and an art exhibit. The shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.