by Sarah Miller
“You have to love what you do in this economy and the return on investment, in terms of time and money and resources, just wasn’t there for us to say, ‘Yep, we love it, let’s keep the business going.’” As part of my effort to put a finger on the pulse of the local business scene and its relationship with the economic atmosphere, I recently sat down with Jessica Jordan Paret, owner of the erstwhile Paradigm boutique and current past-president of the Annapolis Business Association. The current economic climate has had a depressing impact on our local businesses, but sometimes the economy is not all to blame.
One of the most surprising pieces of information I gleaned during this interview was that the closing of Paradigm was not entirely a result of the economy. “We never felt that we had to close the doors,” Paret remarked. She explained that Paradigm was actually doing a little better than breakeven, which is considered successful in this economy.
She does admit that the economy hindered at least part of her business plan though. “I always wanted to have multiple stores, so I think the economy certainly impacted our ability to grow, but just looking at this store, I think we were doing very well.” Paradigm opened in August 2007, and while Paret’s background is in neither fashion nor business, she explains, “I’ve always had a desire to work for myself.” Paret completed both undergrad and graduate work at George Washington University in urban policy. After schooling, worked as a budget policy analyst for the Maryland legislature and then the State Board of Elections, but she was always looking for something “new and different” to do.
“It’s funny that I ended up in retail in many ways, because my first job in high school was with Abercrombie and Fitch, and I hated it. I would never run my own store that way. In Paradigm customer service was number one,” Paret told me as she sang the praises of her sales staff. She desired for her store to transcend the elite aspect of the fashion industry by harmonizing chic clothing choices with reasonable prices and a friendly atmosphere.
One thing about running a boutique that proved to be difficult yet fascinating was working the balance between local and tourist shoppers. “I really wanted to open something that the locals would appreciate and enjoy, but a huge percentage of business is tourists,” Paret reflected. Working to keep such a delicate balance was a challenge, but one for which Paret was game. “I really liked looking at what sells and what doesn’t. That part, to me, was really interesting.”
Paradigm was located on Upper Main Street. Being located in the heart of the city was of utmost importance to Paret. Being on the “Ant Trail” – people starting at the top of Main Street, walking down to the water, and making their way back up – was essential for business. “People don’t do a good job of spreading out to explore” she chuckled, “so at least being on the Ant Trail, you got a lot of traffic.”
More than just the Ant Trail, Paret said, “I really wanted to be a part of the Annapolis community.” Her reverence for the idea of “community” was evident throughout the interview and in her boutique as well. For the past two years, Paradigm held a fashion show to benefit the Hospice of the Chesapeake. Hospice of the Chesapeake is a cause in which Paret, her husband, and various friends are involved.
Beyond that, Paret took her ideas and visions to the Annapolis Business Association. She served as ABA’s president from January 2008 until this past December. “It was absolutely a no-brainer to join the organization,” Paret remarked. “I joined the Visitor’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce as well. I felt that it was important to maintain all those memberships – it works with that whole community aspect.”
There’s that word again: community. She spoke about the importance of a sense of community with such vehemence that even a casual passerby to our conversation could understand that her passion is for real. Part of this concept is Paret’s insistence that there is a need for “an organization to advocate for the interests of the business owners.” She praised the ABA as a “great presence in the community,” but recognized that the city’s business owners were in desperate need for a group to “advocate the legislative issues.” “Those things can make or break a business.” This goal was part of what Paret worked to accomplish as ABA president. She proudly declares that they “changed the direction of the organization” to become more of a voice for the business owners.
A hurdle that has proved more difficult to clear has been getting the City to make life easier for small business owners. Paret maintains that the City has recently become more interested in listening to and valuing the input of the businesses, but there is a long way to go before open lines of communication are established.
This brings me to what was Paret’s most important point. She was eager to explain that while the ABA and other organizations can be an advocate for the small businesses, and the City could stand to make it easier for small business owners to understand what is going on in town and know how it affects them, the root of the issue is that it is up to the business owners themselves to have a unified voice. “The more unified we are the less they can ignore us. We need to have a unified voice. It’s up to us to be proactive.”
Paret encouraged business owners to be proactive in many arenas: looking at legislation, being in front of City Council before policy takes effect, and most importantly – voicing their needs and opinions to the City in such a manner that the City has no choice but to pay attention. But there is reluctance in the small business community to form one voice. They are disconnected. “I think the very nature of small business is a certain level of independence. Just by nature, it’s difficult to bring all these people together.”
While she may no longer own a business downtown, Paret is far from disappearing into the Annapolis ether. As past-president of the ABA, she will continue to serve on the board for the next year. Beyond that, she said her involvement will depend on what the board and business community decide, but as a resident, “I’ll continue to be involved however I can be.”
As far as future projects, Paret is exploring a few options. She has no concrete plans at the moment, but she knows one thing specifically. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Once you’ve worked for yourself, it’s really hard to go back to working for somebody else.”
Whether she plans on opening another store downtown or not, Paret is adamant that the community must do all they can to support local businesses. “These are wonderful people,” she muses. “I think we have an obligation to support our businesses. If we want businesses to stick around, we’ve got to support them.”