Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
With her sustainably-inclined boutique Ware, Gillie Roberts is receiving her master’s degree in life.
Ware proprietor Gillie Roberts is well-acquainted with assumption.
There’s the widely held belief, for example, that “sustainability”—the foundational tenet of her College Street shop in downtown Asheville—refers solely to matters of environment, a fallacy that Roberts verbally dismantles for shoppers every day.
Then there’s the matter of her age. At just 26, Roberts finds herself increasingly accustomed to queries and comments in the vein of, “Could you give this to your manager?”—a sentiment she dismisses with a smile and a nod.
And then there’s the store itself, a minimalist beacon in the midst of a profusion of downtown shops stocked with cluttered shelves and hippie knick-knacks. Her white walls and scrupulous stock of simple goods spur visitors to speculate her origins, usually presuming Los Angeles or New York City. Which is yet another hunch the Brevard native expels.
Ware’s is an esthetic that frequently earns the characterization “un-Ashevillian,” garnering those erroneous assumptions of Roberts’ origins; but to a new, growing contingent of locals, it’s a look, feel, and stock of goods that is actually very Ashevillian indeed. As the local population shifts to accommodate a new generation of natives and transplants, so is it shifting to accommodate their new ideals—ideals very in-line with Roberts’ own.
What, exactly, is a “new Ashevillian”? Well, it’s an individual who values all tenets of sustainability (environmental, as well as economic and ethical). The new Ashevillian is youthful and defiant in the face of (or perhaps because of) it. And the new Ashevillian has traded in kaleidoscopic gauchos for oatmeal hued linen trousers, patchouli for palo santo, and extravagant follies for practical minimalism. So, to Roberts’ contemporaries—well-educated, outspoken, and confident millennials—her Ware shop is a representation of the part of Asheville we know and love.
Gillie Roberts is not the first of her kind, but her shop, Ware, is, and it stands as testament to, and in support of, a new generation of woke Western North Carolinians.
Road to (No)Ware
Roberts comes by her conscience congenitally. “My friends and family all lovingly call my mom the witch doctor,” Roberts says with a laugh. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1986, her mother cured herself with Chinese and alternative medicines. That was enough to convince the Robertses to raise their children within such a lifestyle, and the family migrated south from Connecticut (where her father, an investment banker, had been commuting to New York City) to the East Coast hub for alternative medicine: Asheville.
Or rather, Brevard, where Gillie grew up in a way that folks outside our spirited community might called “nonconformist.” (One example of her atypicalness: Her grand act of teenage defiance was using Dove deodorant instead of the natural alternatives on which she was raised.) When it came time to consider college, the bohème gravitated toward the arts; she sent her intent to enroll to SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), envisioning a career in fashion design and merchandising. But a trip to Appalachian State University in Boone wooed Roberts with its promises of a more traditional college experience and, more specifically, its Sustainable Development Department. “I sat in on a class and realized pretty much immediately that that was the kind of content that I wanted to study, and that the creative pieces of my brain would always be there for me to tap into, should I want them,” she remembers.
Without hesitation or regret, Roberts cancelled her enrollment (and scholarship) at SCAD and enrolled at AppState, where she studied sustainable international development with a concentration in community economic development (and a Francophone Africa concentration too, for good measure). It wasn’t until some years later that Roberts’ pre-college preoccupation with fashion merchandising would find new roots in her Asheville storefront—though her interest in craft was abiding. It was there that her seemingly contrary interests in sustainable development and fashion coalesced in her studies (and, eventually, in her store).
“My interests,” Roberts explains, of her collegiate studies, “have always been in community economic development, obviously, but specifically craft and how people maintain livelihoods with traditional crafts.” Thanks to industrialization, immigration, and a lack of demand, rural communities and their traditional crafts the world over are disappearing. Yet, as she points out, there is a demand for those crafts—right here in the Western world: “How do we bridge that disconnect between people being able to support themselves on a craft that has been in their family, or in their community, or in their tradition for generations and generations, and the people who want them here, without exploiting people and the planet?”
It is an admittedly complex question, especially for a college student, but one that fueled her studies and, later, Ware.
Like so many starry-eyed and well-meaning intellectuals, Roberts’ first post-college career move in 2014 took her to Washington D.C. and into nonprofits, where she worked as an intern at Fabretto Children’s Foundation, helping to deliver children’s nutrition and education programs in Nicaragua. When her hopes for full-time employment with the nonprofit fizzled, she next took up a position at a government consulting firm, where her experience in grant writing translated almost seamlessly into government project proposals.
As you may have guessed (there we go making assumptions again), government consulting was not Roberts’ preference, so when an opportunity arose with Change Lives Now (a Brevard nonprofit founded by family friends, and the subject of her high school senior project), she sprang at the call. In the spring of 2017, she quit her job and, like her parents before her, emigrated back to the mountains; from here, she planned to move to Nairobi to help execute and implement a new transition program for graduating high school students entering college.
It was during her travels in the interim between jobs that the plan collapsed. “I was in Mexico, and I got a call from the folks we worked with on the ground in Nairobi,” says Roberts. “They said, ‘Hey, the political instability has escalated such that it is not safe to be here. You would effectively be a liability.’” She adds that though nothing catastrophic had happened, the tension of elections was rising—a precursor to conflict in the past. “I was in equal measure grateful for their heads-up and a little concerned because I had already quit my job.”
Roberts spent the remainder of her travels “aggressively note-taking lists and lists and lists of the things that I had wanted to do,” and garnering opinions from a friend. “I was really lucky that I was with this friend who’s the friend that you love and hate for their persistence and hole-poking in all of your stories,” she shakes her head, grinning. “He was like, ‘You hear the things you want to do—why aren’t you doing them?’”
Roberts countered with the practicalities and risks, but eventually, with much prodding and contemplation, realized that with a little finagling and a new perspective, she could do something in line with her dreams.
Ware was initially imagined as Trade, a partnership with another friend who could lend merchandising expertise to Roberts’ foundational knowledge of sustainability. “She eventually realized that it wasn’t where she needed to be, and I was far enough along the line mentally… and I was like, ‘Well, maybe, you know, I could still do this’,” Roberts remembers, her voice tinged with the incredulity of the decision. Nine months later, Ware opened its doors, without fanfare or announcement, on a Thursday afternoon in July of 2018.
Those nine months comprising the interlude between Roberts’ decision to pursue Ware on her own and opening its doors were toilsome, wearisome, and blessed by blind guilelessness. “I’m realizing that naïveté is super beneficial in the early stages [of a business], because if you don’t know your constraints, you just keep moving forward,” Roberts says, of her experience as a new entrepreneur.
Perhaps the greatest and most unforeseen challenge at the outset was funding. “I just dramatically underestimated the amount of effort that it took to go into funding something,” she admits. Without personal capital or an investment from direct family members, Roberts decided to move forward with a friends/family round of fundraising. She sent out a flurry of emails, illustrating her idea and soliciting investments. (Her goal was small enough that it didn’t have to be registered, a fact that did not preclude a stress-inducing volley of paperwork and calls with the North Carolina Department of Revenue.)
Spurred by her outreach, her friends and family provided the equity to fund her initial investment, and Roberts returned to her lender, Mountain BizWorks, money in hand—and lease in hand, too, a causality dilemma with which Roberts wrestled. “In order to sign a multi-year commercial lease, you have to prove that you have the finances to pay rent on an on-going basis” she explains. “But in order to get money from an institution, they like to see that you have a space.”
It’s the classic chicken-or-egg scenario: You can’t get a loan without a space, and you can’t get a space without a loan. But with some fortuitous help from her parents, Roberts was able to secure a commercial space on College Street in Asheville, formerly home to Moonstone Mountain.
When questioned about her choice of location, especially considering that downtown Asheville’s commercial leases are arguably the most expensive in the region (a fact that’s contributing considerably to the monopolization of the neighborhood by corporate franchises), Roberts’ logic is sound: Though her products are categorically a luxury, her margins are low, which requires high exposure and traffic. She considered other neighborhoods, including Biltmore Village, South Slope, and West Asheville, but recognized that only downtown afforded the retail environment she’d need to thrive. “Retail stores drive retail traffic,” she notes. “With restaurants, people know they want a meal, they know they want a specific kind of meal, they seek it out, and they leave. With retail, people want to just go shopping. So, they walk. I needed to be in that path.”
With her space and investment procured, the loan process continued unheeded. Roberts was then faced with the overwhelming task of transforming a former hokey, ‘90s-era gift shop into a refined, modern boutique. She merged her own vision and eye for design, the dexterity of her roommate, and the able bodies of her friends in order to accomplish her concept.
The ceilings—partially black due to the previous installation of an old timey photo booth—and the walls—swathed in primary colored mountainscapes—were achromatized under layers (and layers) of primer to a neutral white. A team of five friends built the simple shelves that line Ware’s eastern wall. Roberts herself soldered her clothing racks, and her roommate crafted dressing rooms to divide the open space. She pried up cobalt blue carpet tiles from the landing, but reconsidered her decision to change the rest of the flooring, instead leaving the light wood-grained vinyl, now adorned with her own touch: speckles of primer from previous projects.
The end result is a shop that feels bright and open, despite its lower-than-street-level location; modern and austere, notwithstanding homey, timeless touches like well-worn oriental rugs and a squishy leather couch; and well-stocked in the face of Roberts’ fastidious product standards (more on that later).
Through both the mental and physical challenges implicit to founding a retail business, Roberts remained buoyantly assured, despite being a self-defined pessimist. Her motto throughout those nine months and today is, “Pessimism didn’t get us to the moon,” a reinterpretation of Helen Keller’s own, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” It’s a perspective familiar to many hopeful entrepreneurs at the outset of their odyssey: unerring optimism, a healthy dose of naiveté, and tenacious hope for what could be, until it becomes what is—in this case, Ware.
The Wares of Ware
Roberts touts another mantra: Progress isn’t perfect, but it must be persistent. “That helped a lot in getting products in the store,” she says of the axiom. When the new merchant began considering the criteria for the products she’d peddle at Ware, the list of requirements was long and the products that satisfied them short. So, it was in the light of that perspective that she slackened her conditions. “I was like ‘It doesn’t meet every single criteria, but it’s significantly better than everything else on the market, and that’s enough for me right now,’” she says.
So, what are those criteria? In other words, how did (and does) Roberts choose the products that line her bricked walls?
Before we define the specifics, it’s important to first understand the definition of “sustainability,” the foundation of all Roberts’ requirements.
“Sustainability, as I use it (which is the international development understanding of the term), is a three-pillar concept encompassing environmental responsibility, ethical practices, and economic health at both micro and macro levels,” she explains. “This is obviously more holistic than the way it is more popularly used in reference to environmental work.” She describes sustainability as a Venn diagram with three wide loops labeled as “environmental,” “ethical,” and “economic” (or if you prefer your alliteration with p’s: “people,” “planet,” and “profit”), and the slim space where the arches all overlap defines true sustainability.
Ideally, it’s in this space that all of Ware’s wares reside. Realistically, Roberts settles for products that meet at least some of her standards—standards that are simple, but surprisingly scarce in our present-day, fast-fashion economy.
“In addition to being well-made, durable, functional, and attractive, I require the products I bring into Ware to check at least one of the following boxes:
“Produced in an environmentally responsible and innovative way.
“By a company who treats workers at every stage on the supply chain ethically by Western standards.
“Has some profound economic impact, whether locally produced or employing a group or community that might otherwise struggle to sustain living wages.
“Produced by a company with a fully integrated and/or transparent supply chain, which often means they are also accomplishing many of the above points.
“Is some sort of traditional craft and supports the carrying on of that cultural legacy and financial viability of doing so.
“Supports environmentally sustainable lifestyle practices—think reusable straws, alternatives to disposable bags, beeswax wrap, etc.
“Is produced by a brand with significant charitable operations—some people call those ‘give-back brands.’ (I should add that I am a particularly harsh judge of these brands, because I feel strongly that their product should be incredibly well done and meet all of the tenets of sustainability before they venture into charitable causes. Otherwise, they’re just producing more junk that the world doesn’t need. This stems from my belief that we would need far less charity in the world if companies took care of their employees and the environment every step of the way.)”
Armed with that lengthy but elastic checklist, Roberts scoured not the internet, but Instagram for her vendors. She began first with a spreadsheet of some 400 companies that she’d compiled over the course of [several years]. “It encompassed where they’re producing, the kinds of things they produce, what their social component is, what they’re doing for the community economic piece, what they’re doing for the environment, and how they change over time,” Roberts notes, of the collection of companies. “That is effectively where I drew from when I started to source products for the store.”
Though Roberts fashions herself a social media-phobe, when she transposed her spreadsheet onto the Instagram platform, it transformed from a simple list into a vast, complex network of brands that fell within the confines of her conditional prerequisites. “Instagram was pretty pivotal for me because of all of the communities around brands on Instagram,” she says. When she followed one brand she knew, she’d be directed to a dozen new ones; Instagram became the Hydra of social media and sustainability.
“It very quickly became very unwieldy to maintain the spreadsheet, because the Instagram network was so robust that I could just keep following and following and following and following,” Roberts remembers. But even in this plentitude of brands there was a hitch: “I found very often what would happen is, I would find a brand that checked all my boxes—except aesthetically. And that was a big key for the store.”
Roberts was hyperaware of the connotations associated with sustainable products (namely, that they weren’t aesthetically appealing), and of her role in dismantling them. She wanted to stock products that appealed to all customers, regardless of their perspective on sustainability. “A lot of times I was thinking, ‘Would someone who does not give a flying flip about any of the sustainability ethos come in and still buy these products?’ Because that’s crucial,” she explains. “Those people still have money, and whether or not they care, they are supporting my business and my ability to support the brands in the store if they come in and want to shop.” Her intention wasn’t to stockpile plainly beatnik brands, but to present a refined selection of quality goods that were, to the surprise of customers, also sustainable, while simultaneously building a reputation as a resource for thoughtfully sourced and responsible goods.
Her reasoning behind prioritizing aesthetics is simple: “It doesn’t matter how sustainable something is if people don’t want it in their homes. If people don’t want it in their lives. If they don’t want to wear it. It doesn’t matter how well it was made, it shouldn’t have been made because it’s not going to get used. And so, I wanted to show, somewhat stubbornly, but also kind of in my own form of protest or activism, that you could have things that were well-made and beautiful and functional, and that you could run a business like a business and it would succeed under all of those tenets.”
Call it stubborn or tenacious, Roberts eventually accomplished her goal, and continues to do so today. Even with the challenges presented by her strict provisions of sustainability and aesthetic, Roberts keeps her shelves stocked with a rotating spectrum of well-made, well-sourced products, ranging from home goods to apparel, travel essentials to body products (see sidebar for some examples). “People are shocked that I could find enough products in the world to fill an entire store,” Roberts laughs.
Roberts recognizes that a store in itself is almost contradictory to the movements she supports—and admits that it’s those tenets that prevent her from being a truly great salesperson. “I’m not very good at selling for the sake of selling, but I am really good at talking about the things that matter to me,” she justifies, even conceding that sometimes she’ll tell a customer not to buy a product, if it won’t be put to use. “For me, it’s more that I don’t want anyone to walk out of this store with a product that they feel was a sales pitch. If they walked out of the store with a product they’re going to use for the lifespan of the product and completely deplete, then I’ve done my job.”
We’ll allow ourselves one last assumption: Roberts is only getting started.
“My goal with Ware is for the company, not me personally but for the company, to become an authority on conscious lifestyle, sustainable lifestyle, intentional consumption, all of those things. For people to come in and know that they can turn their brain off because it’s all going to be the best in its category.” Roberts recrosses her legs, folded beneath her on the above-mentioned squishy leather couch. She anticipates growing pains inherent to a position of leadership in any industry, especially a new one like sustainable merchandise; there are the challenges of selling online, for example (though she already suspects that Instagram would be instrumental), and the fact that most of the companies she supports don’t currently have the inventory to support a successful, nationally distributed online retailer.
Though her ambitions for Ware are far-ranging, they begin locally, with a strong community of dedicated shoppers—a community made up of New Ashevillians.
“I’m getting increasing numbers of people, locals, saying, ‘My friends said I had to come. I came. It’s beautiful.’ People are incredibly complimentary,” she says of business thus far. But, she adds, with a caveat: “I do struggle with the kind of dichotomy of the people who want to come and appreciate the product the most are the people who are less likely to make impulse buys. So that’s great, and I want that community, and that community needs to exist around the store for it to exist in the long term—in the short term, I really need tourists.”
She laughs, waves aside her tangent. “No, I genuinely still want people to be buying things to last them forever—but it doesn’t come without its consequences.”
As she approaches the six month anniversary of her business, Roberts considers the challenges and surprises of entrepreneurship thus far, like the weight of perpetual decision making (“Now, when I walk into any space, I’m so painfully aware of the fact that everything in the room has been a decision by someone, from literally whether or not that corner is vacuumed to the paint color.”) and the ripple effect of a single purchase or a single return. But in all of these processes, Roberts finds growth.
“This is my master’s degree from the school of life,” she smiles. In truth, it’s an education that’s bilateral, as Roberts continues to dismantle assumptions about sustainability, Ware, and the very annotations of what it means to be Ashevillian.
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