Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
After searching in all the wrong places, two friends turned business partners finally stumble upon what just might be the right location.
It was a balmy Labor Day weekend when friends and business partners Stephanie Duncan Wilkinson and Lindsay York Woodruff left for the beach to celebrate. They had just signed the lease on a retail space in a fabulous Art Deco building in downtown Asheville. They had spent months negotiating the letter of intent with the owner.
They had collected bids from contractors on the improvements needed and had even hired a designer to create their logo. The business cards were printed, and $30,000 worth of inventory was heading their way. Everything was moving toward the big October 15th opening. Finally all their work had paid off, and they could take a moment to breathe.
Their commercial realtor, Burns Aldridge of Beverly Hanks remembers, “So I know they’re celebrating at the beach, and they’ve ordered all this stuff. Saturday I get a call from the landlord’s broker, which is weird because commercial brokers don’t work on weekends. And he’s like, ‘We’ve got a major issue, the landlord doesn’t want to lease to these girls.’” Aldridge hung up the phone, knowing the next call he had to make would change everything.
Wilkinson says she has no clue exactly when or how the concept for a modern general store sprang to life. After she and Woodruff met through their husbands, they started spending more and more time together and connecting on a soulful level. Wilkinson recalls, “We realized we had both studied public relations in college. We talked about our paths and where we’d gone. She was a teacher, and I had gone into textiles and buying and retail. Yet we were both feeling slightly unfulfilled and had a yearning for something else.”
Wilkinson’s search for fulfillment took her in many directions. Her first job out of college was as a graphic designer. She spent almost seven years working in her mother-in-law’s shop, Yesterday’s Tree, which offers furniture, accessories, and interior design services. She even attended Asheville’s Privai Academy in 2010 to study Esthetics and skin care.
Woodruff had struggled to jumpstart her teaching career in Asheville. “I was a second grade teacher in Atlanta, and when I moved here, I couldn’t land a full-time teaching job. I got really frustrated.” Woodruff felt this was a sign that she should move on to do something different. “I have my masters in education, and I can’t find a job? Not to mention the pay here is $10,000 less a year than I was making in Atlanta. I did part time, I did substitute teaching, and finally I just got over it.”
Perhaps it was fate that led her to work at Tops for Shoes when she first moved to Asheville.
“That lit the fire under me as well, enjoying retail. I think they have a model business over there. It’s a well-oiled machine, and they really take care of their employees and their customers. They are who I look up to when I think about business.” She credits Alex Carr of Tops and her sister-in-law Jennifer Woodruff, who owns Build It Naturally in Asheville, as her influences. “I feel like I was surrounded by business owners, and it made me think that’s something I would like to do also.”
Wilkinson always wanted to own a gift shop, and Woodruff aligned with that idea, “I’ve always loved giving gifts, and I felt like I was good at it growing up.” As they began dreaming and conceptualizing what their ideal store would be like, they tossed around store names. Wilkinson and Woodruff sounded too much like a law firm. Coincidentally, both women had dropped their middle names for their maiden names when they married, so formerly they were Stephanie Duncan and Lindsay York. Duncan & York had flair and seemed to fit the modern general store vibe they were going for. A friend even commented it sounded both ‘British and southern,’ which were Wilkinson’s two favorite things. They added the tag line, ‘Modern Market,’ envisioning a novelty feel that was still mindful and tasteful. Now that they had their concept, all they needed was the perfect location.
Starting to soar
When Wilkinson and Woodruff first approached Aldridge in January of 2013, they had their eye on the main floor of the Windsor Hotel across from Mellow Mushroom, which was Aldridge’s listing at the time. “They were dying to get in there,” Aldridge recalls, “That was their first choice.” There were going to be 14 high-end vacation rentals above and retail on the street level. But the Windsor owners were looking for national name type franchises. Aldridge wanted to convince the owners, who are not from Asheville, that a mom and pop business could be perfect there, but he needed help from the novice entrepreneurs. “These owners are going to want to see a business plan, pictures and concepts of what your space is going to look like, because it’s their building, and they want to see if it’s going to jibe with the other three commercial spaces. It’s a whole synergy type thing,” Aldridge says, “Anything to help me sell you, because right now it’s two girls starting a business.”
That’s when Woodruff decided to take the eight-week “Foundations” course offered at Mountain BizWorks. “I knew I wanted to open a store but I didn’t feel like I was really prepared,” Woodruff admits, “The course took you step by step, every week you would work on a different part of your business plan. I really think that was one of the best things I did because we estimated our cash flow, and it made it more real. I thought, this is doable, it’s not just some dream.”
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)