Co-edited by Grace Delia
The very name Hey Rooster General Store evokes a nostalgic feeling, a sentiment from our country's rural past. Courtney Webb’s store is indeed slightly nostalgic, though very little about Nashville is rural these days, especially East Nashville. Fashion and design have piggybacked off the strong, distinct musical legacy there, creating a definitive Nashville aesthetic emulated around the country.
Hey Rooster maintains the flavor of a traditional country store with a fresh eye, one that’s seen the sights of New Orleans and the small batch mini empire of Brooklyn. Courtney created her shop to sell handmade goods from a talented and growing pool of makers and craftsman from all over the country, many of whom just launched their businesses in the last few years. And Nashville’s present retail climate perfectly mirrors Courtney’s practice of collaboration and celebration of handmade goods.
Hey Rooster's selection transcends the typical general store fare of mostly utilitarian products like flour and jackknives. The featured products boast both form and function. From sweet-smelling apothecary products to tasty nut-butters, Courtney’s shop offers goods for the bathroom and the pantry. But true to the concept of the old general store, Hey Rooster is also a community-focused space, where classes and special events are held upstairs in the "Hen House", and featuring made-in-America products is a priority.
But we’ll let Courtney fill you in…
Before you were a Nashville shopkeep…?
I began my adult life as an architect in New York City. It sounds better on paper than it was. I was pretty bored and really just wanted to get out of the office and back into some kind of studio. I missed school and making models and drawings, tiny pieces of art. When I got laid off from the profession in 2009, I wanted to get back to using my hands. I’d been taking metalsmithing classes while I was working professionally and thought I would give some time to that while I was unemployed. I never went back to my job, and I continued making and selling jewelry while barely surviving.
Then an opportunity arose to open a store with a few friends in a market made of shipping containers in Brooklyn. The space was shared, and we styled it more like a curated shop than a booth with several artists. We even sold work of other artists that weren’t owners in the shop. The positive reaction to our work and increased sales in that environment versus just at a table at a craft market made a light go off in my head. It seemed that the appreciation was greater and the living, with walls and electricity and a door that locked behind us at the end of the day, was easier. It seemed that I had finally found a sustainable lifestyle in having our little shop and being able to make jewelry, but not solely depend on that for income.
And then, we were evicted from our rented site to make way for the tallest building in Brooklyn. After only three months in business, we had only had 90 days to vacate. That short time in business still told me everything I needed to know about my future. The decision to move back to Nashville and open a shop just seemed to make sense.
What’s so unique about Nashville's retail landscape?
There’s a very strong sense of community between shop owners, especially in East Nashville. For now, we are in a really special time, and we all feel like we are in this period of rapid growth together. There’s a spirit of collaboration, not competition. I don’t know how long it will last, but we all feel very connected and supported. I also admire how different and personal other independent shops are in my neighborhood. Each brand is a true reflection of the person or small team behind it. I get so excited to send tourists to all of our neighbors. There’s a lot of great work going on, and a lot of these businesses could stand their ground in the retail communities of bigger cities.
What's your buying process for the store and online? Do you need to see it all in person? Gut instincts?
When I first opened the shop, I mostly stocked the store with things made by people that I knew personally. Our community of makers is much larger than that now. There is work in the shop made by people that I haven’t met, but I still feel a good connection on some level with every maker and brand in the shop. A lot of those artists, I’ve found on Instagram or Pinterest or via word of mouth from other shop owners. Honestly, I rely heavily on intuition and feeling and branding. I’ve ordered food and candles without samples, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. If you put enough effort into your branding, it really does communicate how much you care about your product and tells me what to expect.
Perfect segueway - how do you define the Hey Rooster brand as a business?
Wow, I've been thinking about this so much lately! I think our brand is different than what I imagined and how it started. It started as a brand that sells U.S.- made and handmade goods, but not a heritage brand, in all areas from food to apothecary goods, to paper goods. Brands evolve or take on an identity of their own, and it dawned on me recently that our brand is our building! The experience of finding it and moving through our space as a consumer or as part of our CSA or attending workshops is what is special about the shop. I am working diligently on making our online experience align more with our in shop experience. Our storefront and its warm space will be something that we want people to be able to take with them or have sent to them. Our first step is developing boxes that mimic the shop that arrive at your door with our favorite goods. It's definitely not a subscription box, just a way of saying we wish you were in here with us so we and we hope this makes you feel like you're here!
You brought it up – what is your personal ethos regarding American made? Or simply your take on consumption in America in general?
Buying U.S. made has been important to me for a long time, but I have become much more strict about buying American made in both my personal consumption and business consumption since opening the shop. My perspective allows me to see just how many American-made products are available to us. There could be five or more all U.S.-made shops in my city with completely different inventories. With that said, I don't think it's realistic to expect everyone to live a 100% U.S.- made lifestyle. I like to try to live a 70/30 American-made/ other-made lifestyle. There is still an affordability issue and budgets are a real part of life, although, I'd argue that the pricing gap is not as far apart as some people think. I sell so many products for under $50 that are high quality. But one area that confuses me the most is mid-range to high-price clothing. For example, a dress from a well-known brand may cost $300, be made of polyester and be made in Asia. Meanwhile, there are lots of $300 dresses that are American made with high quality fabrics. That's the area that it just seems like a no brainer. It troubles me that so many retailers would rather stock the polyester dress when their wholesale price is the same. I wish retailers, even small boutiques, had more will power to choose the higher quality, U.S.-made garments for their shops.
Regarding people, where do you draw the most inspiration?
I draw a lot of inspiration from women who have a similar energy level and excitement about their work. When I think about my closest friends in Nashville and my greatest sources of inspiration outside of our community, I see that we’re actually quite different from each other. We are all working in very different directions creatively and aesthetically. I’m drawn to the personal and professional independence and confidence of each person and aspire to as strong in my identity as they are.
What trends in retail and design are you most excited about?
I’m completely excited about the state of pottery and ceramics!!! Shortly after opening the shop, I met Brit McDaniel of Paper & Clay in Memphis and began carrying her work. I never remember having much desire for a handmade mug before that. Her color choices and modern lines made me want all new mugs and left me thinking that I wish there were more people making work like that. There are more and more artists making modern work and it’s amazing to watch. I’m enjoying it so much that we’re having a pop-up shop focused on modern ceramics featuring the work of over 35 American potters and ceramicists! I can’t wait!
What advice do you give entrepreneurs, especially designers or retailers?
Define your brand and find your voice! I think this is the most important thing we can do. I have a lot of room to improve in this area and I think about it all the time. Your brand can evolve, but it must have a clear identity, and it must be communicated well and in a concise way. If you can not design or define your brand, have someone else do it. It is worth the expense.
Favorite story while working in the store?
This is so hard, something great usually happens every day. One moment that comes to mind immediately was from our 2014 holiday party. I invited one of my vendors, Kathleen, with Smoke Perfume to do a trunk show for our holiday party. She came all the way from New Orleans to join us. Meanwhile, my sister, her boyfriend and his dad came to our holiday party. The dad, Lionel, makes some of the wood boards and bowls in our shop. He grew up in Baton Rouge. Through some conversation about growing up in Louisiana they figured out that Lionel and Kathleen are cousins. So, one of my favorite vendors, who I have just gotten to know this year may one day be distant family! Weird connections like that happen all the time in the shop! There’s something haunted or enchanted about this space that brings people together in really personal ways. I can’t explain it or even take credit for it, it’s just too weird sometimes.
Where do you see yourself and/or Hey Rooster in 5 or even 10 years?
It’s pretty boring, but I truly believe I will still own and run the shop most days of the week. I imagine we’ll have a larger online presence and maybe have our own line of products, maybe something that I design and/ or make. I hope we remain a place that supports and cultivates creativity and community. We may grow with a changing neighborhood, or we may not survive the development and I have to be prepared for anything. Losing my job in 2009 made me realize that anything can change at anytime no matter how smart you are or how hard you work or how much you do the right thing. Creative entrepreneurs may have no guarantees or job security, but we do have a wonderful set of skills and talent to come up with something new if one thing doesn’t work out. In 10 years, I only hope that it’s better than ever, and I'm still able to make a living in a creative profession and that I continue to have a healthy integration of work, life, and health.