It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We're reviving last year's The Maker Series, to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do.
Q + A with Nicola Wilhelm of Ampersand
Ampersand specializes in furniture and home goods, with a special emphasis on wicker, textiles and brass. Owner Nicola Wilhelm tells Flea Founder Stephanie Sheldon how she got into the biz and what keeps her inspired.
1. How would you describe Ampersand?
Ampersand is a thoughtfully curated selection of vintage furniture and home decor. It is a snapshot of what I love in the moment (currently textiles, anything wicker or rattan, and brass), and because of that is ever shifting as I grow.
2. What was your path to beginning your business?
Winding, in a word. Ampersand came out of an obsessive hobby of decorating and redecorating my own place, and days that were becoming all too full of work I didn't like doing anymore. It started with a seven dollar gallon of reject paint and some old furniture in my basement. Then, with a dear friend's encouragement, I visited the Cleveland Flea for the first time, and left saying, "I could do that." And the next month, I did.
3. What are your roles in the business?
Ampersand is just me, so I do it all, which sounds far more impressive than it is. I intentionally curate every piece, design and execute the displays, and manage all the glamorous paperwork that goes along with it. In the moments of insanity when I decide I just must sell a couch at a flea market, my sister or often other vendors help me get that thing in and out of my van.
4. Why do you love what you do?
I keep trying to answer this in a concise way, and I can't. I love vintage. I love that nearly everything in my house has a story that long preceded me, and I love the charm in bringing a lot of pieces that may not seem to belong together and creating a cohesive space. I love every aspect of making a space a home, so searching out a beautiful or odd piece and then watching another person find that piece--watching their eyes light up--there's a very human-to-human element to that. It's a job I wake up wanting to do, and am happy to go to bed tired having accomplished it. You can't ask for more than that.
5. Why does Cleveland need a business like Ampersand?
The beauty of the small business is that it's one person's perspective. Ampersand is my take on vintage, my perspective on home decor. That's always going to be slightly different than someone else's. I definitely have my influences, but I would like to think that I have created a little niche for the shoppers who love what I love. Every home regardless of size or location should be unique and special to its owner; that's what I try to make possible.
6. What's the best / most difficult part of running your own business?
The most difficult part is doing the parts you don't like. When it's just you and you're not organized by nature or good at keeping books, you still have to get that stuff done. The best part is the freedom--setting your own goals, using your time as you want, and being able to change course when you decide it's best.
7. What are your goals for the business this year?
I try to set manageable goals, ones I can achieve. I want to build my online presence and hone my brand this year.
8. How did you manage to stay sane during May Flea? (Sidenote: This was our worst weather day ever, and though building a creative business looks fun from the outside, there are many storms to weather. One was a real storm, during our May 2016 Flea.)
I laughed a lot. I kept trying to stay positive the day before, even when other vendors were texting the weather reports. Then, Saturday came, and I realized everything I said was bullshit. It was worse than I could have imagined, so I laughed (one of my favorite traits I got from my mom--inappropriate, nervous laughter). Overall, I just focused on the fact that it was one bad day. Don't get me wrong--stress and anxiety come easy to me, but I spent the last couple years unlearning some bad habits. I am not bubbly or happy go lucky, but I recognize the toll that worry takes on the now.
9. Did you see yourself growing up to be a vintage dealer / treasure hunter?
I was never that girl who knew what she wanted be when she grew up. And the older I get, that is only more true. My mom and nana taught me the art of garage sale-ing at a young age, and this just feels like an extension of that, so I'd say it was probably destined.
10. What's the first big moment where you knew you were headed in the right direction with your business?
This may sound simple, but for me, it was the first time I had a repeat customer. It has happened a lot since, and I still get that first-time kind excited about it.
11. Who inspires you?
It has to be my customers. I sold at a market two winters ago. It was small, and I did not make very many sales -- all part of the business. The highlight was meeting a young girl who was in from out of town. We chatted in the cold for a while, and she ended up buying a box of slides from me -- photos from someone else's story. It was an entire life, really -- vacations, family photos posed outside. She just found me on Instagram (two years later) to share the art installation she made from them. That's the kind of stuff that inspires me. People who see their own potential in the items I have curated. I don't know what it will become to them, but I know it's going to be special for one person. My goal is to get it to them.
12. Have you learned anything about your business by participating in Cleveland Flea?
I've learned nearly everything about my business by participating in the flea. From knowledgeable and helpful fellow vendors to repeat customers, the Flea has made ampersand a possibility for me.
13. What's your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
My struggle has been drawing a line between work and the rest of my life. When I first started, I stored my inventory in my home--garage, basement, and then eventually dining room. I've made some changes recently that have allowed me a physical separation, and it's made all the difference.
14. What's your favorite piece of advice as it relates to your business?
You will find your style. A favorite vendor of mine told me that, and I don't think I knew what she meant at that time. I definitely do now. I was collecting things that I thought other people would want, and I wasn't developing my aesthetic. I think that only come with time, and it's been one of my favorite aspects of growing this business.
15. What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about your business?
As a person who enthusiastically love surprises, I am sad to say but I cannot come up with one answer for this question. I guess the surprise might be how boring I actually am.
16. How would you hope Ampersand is described by your Dream Customers (those clients that really love you)?
I want my dream customer to walk into my booth like it's a room they never want to leave. Staging and presentation is such an important part of this for me, and that's the initial lure. But ideally, it's also a space they want to linger. I want them to pick things up, touch them. And at the end of the experience, when they flip the price tag, I want them to be think it's affordable. I strive to create a space I would want to shop again and again.
17. What's the most amazing thing you've ever found?
I think I get excited about things other people don't. I love original art, especially portraits, and I'm currently obsessed with textiles and wicker. Probably one of my favorite finds was a 1981 map of Cleveland. It's currently hanging in my bedroom, the only wall large enough to hold it, and isn't for sale...yet, at least.
18. Anything you've found that you just couldn't sell?
Of course. I try to only collect pieces that I personally love, because the ones that don't sell usually end up in my home somewhere.
19. What's your favorite booth at the flea (besides your own)?
It would have to be Liza Michelle - because her nature-inspired jewelry speaks to my heart, Ode Vintage - because I just adore everything Olivia finds, and Cosmic Girl Goes Home - because Robin has been an inspiration since long before our mutual flea days and getting to sell alongside her now is essentially for filling all of my vendor crush fantasies.
20. What do you spend much of your time doing?
This has changed for me, since I started my business. In the beginning, I did a lot of refurbishing and painting, but now I do that less and less. Most of my time is spent collecting, hunting out pieces that I love and know someone else will love, too. It is my favorite feeling to pack my little car full of treasures, drive it home to unload, and then head back out for more.
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