A Corner Store from Yesteryear: ALIVE Stockist Civil Alchemy in Webster Groves
Civil Alchemy, having just opened in September of last year, has eagerly inhabited the role of the neighborhood corner store—with a refined twist. Walking into the expertly curated, bright and airy space, shoppers will find specialty apparel, home décor, accessories, jewelry, artisan-crafted food and drink, fresh flowers, and even the brand’s own gin, with floral notes. Midwest-based brands like The Normal Brand for apparel, Blueprint Coffee, Salume Beddu for cured meats, goods from Kansas City Canning Co. and many more line the venue’s shelves. (You can also pick up the latest issue of ALIVE here!)
Founded by mother-son team Ian VanDam and Kelley Barr, formerly of K Hall Designs, the approach they’ve created is decidedly based around community. “This is not about making a bunch of money, opening a bunch of stores and generating a ton of hype,” says Barr, which VanDam seconds. “We both have this profound romanticism for the stores of yesteryear, when you knew the shop owners all along the street and how important that is for your community’s fabric. Community strength is critical, for everything. It ripples into every other facet of life when you have strong community, commerce and local businesses; everything else thrives around it.”
Keep reading for our conversation with Barr and VanDam.
How did this idea come together?
Kelley: When Ian graduated from college, I was already brainstorming some ideas that he found interesting, and it was a very natural transition from there. I’m not sure that we even understood where we were going to be today a year ago.
Ian: I was studying for the LSAT at the time, and she was like, ‘Hey, you want to start a retail store?’ And I was like ‘Please, yes. This is so boring.’ It sounded much more interesting than going to law school. I graduated from college in 2016, and we started this about six months later.
What is your process like when it comes to working together?
Kelley: It was just very natural. We both had ideas, and they were really symbiotic.
Ian: We’d just be ranting at each other. ‘We need this, and this! Apparel—we definitely need apparel!’
Kelley: Haha, right. We’d say, ‘Is somebody writing this down?’
What is the philosophy behind what you do at Civil Alchemy?
Ian: One of the things we both really valued was a sense of community, which tends to get washed away in retail, particularly. And we really wanted to bring it a little closer to the pulse of people, on a street where people are walking, biking and interacting; we didn’t want it to feel isolated from that. Putting people first in retail is something that online retail will never be able to do. There’s a reason why brick and mortar will always exist. People need to interact with the thing that they’re buying and the person selling it, and the internet can’t do that. So in the meantime—for the next 100 years, until the internet figures out virtual reality—we have demand. I think we have a responsibility to do it the best we can. We do have an online store, and we sell a lot of stuff on it. But so far we’ve had way, way more support from the community coming in, seeing it and experiencing it.
Kelley, how is this different from your former venture, K Hall Designs?
Kelley: It’s a much smaller venture for me, and also the closest to my heart. K Hall became a very big company with a lot of products, sales reps, stores and multiple retail locations. My husband and I were partners in the business, and we were like, ‘What are we doing just sitting in offices?’ We really had the craving to work within our community and to do something more personal with our neighbors. We bought multiple buildings down this side of the road, and my husband is working on opening The Frisco Barroom, which will be our bar and restaurant partner. We also live less than a mile away from here. We’re really embedded in our community.
Ian: They’re the one-two punch. You guys are a great combo.
What is the experience of working with family like?
Kelley: My husband and I worked together for 15 years, and then we thought, ‘I think we should have our own careers.’ It’s kind of a running joke now because we were almost like a magnet and steel, coming back together to work on a project. We lasted about a year and a half before we were working on something else together; granted, they are separate—but we’re still each other’s sounding boards.
I really excel in macro and micro. I can see the big picture and intense details. But I have no idea how to middle manage. I get lost in things like paperwork. Ian actually has the ability to be in all aspects of it, and right now he’s needed with all three.
Ian: It’s a good place to be. I enjoy being someone who can operationalize a creative thought, and I don’t necessarily need to be in the driver’s seat with everything. She also has this amazing ability to just go into the cosmos and say, ‘This needs to go here!’ and has these very intentional reasons for organizing the space. It’s pretty phenomenal. I didn’t have as much of an appreciation for it until we opened and watched customers following this guided journey. It’s almost like you’re telling a stories through items.
Did you ever have fears that this venture would fail?
Ian: I probably did. Before it came together and everything was in boxes, I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I really hope this works.’ For me, it’s an emotional gamble. But when everything started falling into place, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s working.’ For me, I have no expectations. It’s either working, or it’s not; it’s not anywhere in the middle.
Kelley: I had faith going into it, mainly because the reason we went down this road is because I believed it would work. And I’ve had faith in something and jumped in with two feet before.
Ian: We did have the retail foundation, but we were able to adapt to new things. The internet and social media has changed the way we connect to goods and people. I had no basis for how to buy and source items. I would just message people whose products I loved and ask to carry them. I didn’t know any different. The way businesses connect to goods to sell has also changed a lot.
What have you learned from working with each other?
Kelley: We work well together. And even if we don’t agree, we make some sort of mumbo-jumbo noise and move on [laughs].
Ian: She’s my mom, and I’m her son, at the end of the day. We’re there for each other, and no business is going to change that, so it does allow for a little more flexibility when you want to put your foot down about something. It allows us to put our heart and soul into something but not leave stressed about work, because your partner is still family.
All images courtesy of Civil Alchemy.
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