(The Wall Street Journal, 23 April 2001)
Marjorie R. Dial experienced many dark nights in deciding what to do with Suma, her store selling Thai decorative arts and home furnishings, when she followed her fiance to San Francisco from Washington, D.C., last year.
But it wasn’t until after she actually moved the store to California that she lost her composure in public. The store — in the form of its sign, its teak sales counter and the bits and pieces of Thai crafts that didn’t get unloaded at the Washington liquidation sale — arrived in a moving truck all mixed up with her personal belongings. No amount of pleading in the pouring rain would convince the movers that the load should have been separated, as Ms. Dial had asked.
“Kind of a metaphor,” she says, for a cross-country move made for love but with a business she very much loves, too, on her mind. Starting a business and making a marriage, of course, both involve great leaps of faith. Would Ms. Dial, launching her married life with Jeremy D. Fields, 30, also be able to relaunch her business, which had seemed to her so fragile from the start?
Now, a year later, Ms. Dial, 29, takes a break from unpacking a shipment of Thai furnishings bought for her new, 1,200-square-foot retail space to reminisce about the journey. Late-afternoon sunlight tumbles through the windows into the store in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District near Golden Gate Park. Customers interrupt to ask questions about the merchandise, which ranges from $8 journals handmade from mulberry-tree bark to $2,000 antique armoires.
Ms. Dial’s store in Washington was the embodiment of a dream she had when she first visited Thailand in 1989, during a year off between high school and college. “I was very attracted to the culture,” says the Columbia, S.C., native. “In everyday life, people were doing really beautiful things, kind of incidentally, to honor the fact that they were alive. Like, most houses have water jars: They’ll fill huge containers up with water, and then they’ll cut fresh flowers and float them.” She dreamed about opening a store in the U.S. that would sell Thai goods and allow her to maintain her ties with the country through buying trips. “Basically, the fantasy was that, someday, when I was, like, 54, I would open a shop,” she says.
After a string of post-college jobs “that I just really didn’t like,” the Yale graduate got a part-time sales job at an Asian-imports store in a Washington suburb to see how such a business could be run. After five months, Ms. Dial quit and assembled $80,000 — savings plus a gift from her grandparents. She flew to Thailand and bought objects she liked and arranged for a consolidator to ship them to the U.S. Back in Washington, spurred on by the knowledge that a shipment containing $50,000 of merchandise was steaming her way, she secured a three-month lease in Dupont Circle for a Christmas season trunk show.
In spite of the fact she had no formal business training, Ms. Dial’s concept proved it had staying power, and she reopened the store in the same location after the trunk show. In a town filled with well-traveled international types, customers recognized and valued authenticity and liked to hear the personal stories behind the objects, which Ms. Dial, as the buyer, could provide. She floated flowers in enormous earthen water jars — just like the ones that captured her attention on her first trip to Thailand.
Mark S. Thompson, 38, a former co-worker from the Asian-imports store, joined her as the store designer. “I was impressed with her approach — she’s a thorough researcher,” he says. By October 1999, Ms. Dial made back her initial investment. Soon after, her fiance, Mr. Fields, learned that he had gotten into medical school — in San Francisco. Moving Suma to San Francisco was the last thing Ms. Dial wanted to do. Or the next-to-last. “I didn’t have it in me to ask him not to go,” she says of Mr. Fields. “I made the choice early on that it would be my issue.”
They had lived apart before during their romance and didn’t want that again. For his part, Mr. Fields attempted to defer his admission for a year to give Ms. Dial more time to build up her business, but he was unsuccessful.
Ms. Dial feared that “by closing the store it would cease to exist — it would go back into my brain.” Better to save the store, she felt, even if she couldn’t be the owner. So, she tried to sell it. The potential buyers, she asserts, tried to lowball her, and she grew indignant. Without much more thought than that, she resolved to move the store to San Francisco.
She sold about 85% of its merchandise at a 30% to 50% discount in a liquidation sale.
Ms. Dial’s intentions were to get right back on the horse in San Francisco. She went on a buying trip to Thailand shortly after moving, even though she hadn’t yet found a retail space, in an effort to recreate the momentum that she experienced the first time around.
But she was exhausted by the feeling that, after all her work in Washington, she was back to square one — looking for space in a much more expensive rental market, studying a retailing environment she didn’t know.
And, planning a wedding now, her heart wasn’t in the store project. She paid her consolidator to hold her merchandise at the dock in Bangkok. Two months slipped by, then August was taken up with her wedding. Come September, there was still no Suma. Her parents started asking whether she was going to get a real job.
It was a lonely feeling. But Mr. Thompson, the store designer, provided her some unexpected motivation. He visited San Francisco, ostensibly on vacation, and essentially asked for a job. If she truly planned to relaunch Suma, he was willing to move and work with her.
She says he told her: “I want to come, and I’m looking forward to it, but I need a start date and I need to know how much money I’m going to be making.”
“He basically woke me up at 8 o’clock in the morning and said, `Let’s go look for the store,’” Ms. Dial recalls. Suddenly responsible for someone else, Ms. Dial felt energized.
She needs to be. Ms. Dial observes that San Francisco doesn’t have the shopping neighborhoods with clusters of retail outfits that Washington does. So she has been developing strategies to draw people to Suma, such as reaching out to local interior designers and offering to shop for specific pieces for customers on buying trips.
And she hasn’t forgotten her original customers. “We really want to put together a catalog on our second year in business” in San Francisco, she says. “And the first recipients of that will be our mailing list of 400 people from D.C.”
But perhaps the biggest change is that Ms. Dial no longer feels like a tourist in retail land. “I feel more serious about the business endeavor here — that it’s not just my dream store. It’s a real business. It’s something separate from my own personal life,” she says.
Mr. Fields, now a second year medical student at the University of California at San Francisco, says, “I think Marjorie went through a transformation in terms of figuring out that, ultimately, what makes the store work is her.”
In retrospect, says Ms. Dial, the logistics of moving were actually not all that terrible. “The worst part was feeling like I had to choose between Jeremy and Suma,” says Ms. Dial. “It was a false choice, and one that I didn’t have to make.”
This is never clearer than in the afternoons when Mr. Fields runs in Golden Gate Park. He usually swings by the store to say hello, and for 10 minutes or so, the two things Ms. Dial loves most are in one place.