Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Meet the Mind Behind Crazy Beautiful, Stock&Belle: Erika Smith

Photo: Emily Zachry

Running a small business is no easy feat – even in Memphis. However, since the fall of 2004, Erika Smith has braved small business ownership and transformed a simple boutique into a Memphis retail staple.

Erika Smith

Photo: Emily Zachry

Through her determination and risk-taking, Erika has established two Memphis retail stores: Crazy Beautiful and Stock&Belle. However, like other small business owners, she had to overcome her share challenges in order for her stores to thrive.

We met up with Erika and asked about her time in business ownership to learn more about what it takes and how to become an entrepreneur in Memphis specifically.

Choose901: Tell me a little bit about your background and what originally peaked your interest in fashion and retail.

Erika Smith: As long as I can even remember, I have always loved to mix and match my styles.  And I, as most thrifty, hipster teenagers nowadays, had a huge obsession with vintage clothing in my late teens to early twenties.

I recall one Friday after school spontaneously getting in my car and driving around the city. No exact destination or a GPS, smart phone, or Siri to lead me back home, just my good ole’ intuition and the ability to ask my friendly gas station attendant to point me in the right direction.

Photo: Kim Thomas

My love of fashion and the retail world quickly became my new favorite past-time and future business endeavor.

-Erika Smith

As fate would lead, I eventually found myself lost in the the 38104. Strangely enough, I felt right at home and fell in love with this eclectic, Midtown world and its diversity.  Countless days (and dollars) were spent exploring the racks of U.S. Male, Flashback, Vintage Mania, and other obscure, small boutiques and thrift shops that once thrived during the late 90’s. My love of fashion and the retail world quickly became my new favorite past-time and future business endeavor.

C901: What inspired you to start your own retail clothing store?

ES: Any money earned during highschool was spent mainly on clothing of some sort. My intention was never to sell these found items, but my collection eventually became too much. I had acquired so many things that were cool but didn’t necessarily fit me, and I quickly had to figure out what to do with it all. Knowing very little about computers but confident that people would buy my curated items if I had an outlet to sell them on, I started a small Ebay store.

Photo: Kim Thomas

It was a great platform to learn the basics of selling, and as time passed, I became more curious and wanted to learn more. I got an opportunity to attend my first market trip in Atlanta. My eyes were opened to this massive and exciting retail world – I wanted to be a part of it.

I eventually realized that the obvious thing missing from my Ebay store, and the part that I personally loved most about shopping, was the in-store experience.  You cannot get that from a virtual site, and I decided I wanted to venture into opening up my own boutique.

C901: Not everyone can run a retail store. What do you believe has made this a reality for you?

ES: From my style to my business sense, I’ve always been a risk-taker, even at times when I should’ve probably said no. Ha! I had zero actual retail experience when I opened Crazy Beautiful in the fall of 2004, but where I lacked experience, I made up for it with ambition and drive. I was turned away multiple times from banks not willing to give me a loan, but I was persistent and found other funding. I’ve never been scared of long hour workdays, and when I put my mind to something I try my hardest to follow through with it.

C901: What has owning Crazy Beautiful, specifically, been like? How has this store differed from your other ventures.

ES: Crazy Beautiful was definitely my School of Hard Knox. I had minimal business sense, and I made a lot of mistakes over those first few years, but I always grew from them. Unlike today where you can literally find about anything on the web with a few simple clicks and even can start your own website in under an hour, it was pretty difficult to scout new brands or find out information on how open a boutique back then. It was a lot of trial and error and just figuring it out on my own.

Photo: Kim Thomas

I created a unique, fun, and affordable shopping experience that girls with any budget could come and enjoy and leave feeling fabulous. For that I am proud.

-Erika Smith

The “customer experience” was (and still is for that matter) always my top priority, and anyone that walked through my doors was instantly a friend. I wanted to give girls more than just a new item of clothing for them to take home. It was just as much for me about the relationship that was made and the confidence that I helped so many young girls find through shopping with me that honestly made those first 10 years such a joy for me.

Before the Forever 21’s and the plethora of fast-fashion chain stores that we now have, I created a unique, fun, and affordable shopping experience that girls with any budget could come and enjoy and leave feeling fabulous. For that I am proud.

C901: Speaking of your other ventures, tell me a little bit about Stock&Belle. What inspired you to start this store?

Photo: Crazy Beautiful

ES: Stock&Belle is a lifestyle boutique that carries everything from men’s and women’s apparel to home furnishings and local art and has a strong focus on well-made products and made-in-USA labels. It was a concept that was created for and by the community that it now serves.

In 2013, my boyfriend and, now, business partner, Chad West, had started helping me with Crazy Beautiful. We had outgrown our space in the UofM area and were in the process of scouting potential sites to relocate. We had a great opportunity to do a three month pop-up shop on South Main, and during that time we fell in love with the space, the people, and the amazing energy of downtown.

Although we didn’t feel that Crazy Beautiful was an ideal fit for that particular location, we knew we wanted to be there and needed to create a concept that catered to a more diversified audience.

We had a great opportunity to do a three month pop-up shop on South Main, and during that time we fell in love with the space, the people, and the amazing energy of downtown.

-Erika Smith

After many late nights and brainstorming sessions, Stock&Belle was born. Supporting local artists has always been important to Chad and me, and Stock&Belle is now home to so many great Memphis brands. Doing what we love while also providing a steady revenue-stream for these artists is our mission, and we are excited to continue growing that particular part of our business to help other up and coming Memphis arsits build their dream.

C901: What challenges have you faced in owning your own business(es)?

Photo: Stock&Belle

ES: Figuring out the whole “work/life balance” has always been my biggest obstacle, and I still struggle with it today. It’s true, I’m a self-certified workaholic, and anyone that knows me will attest to this.

Finding personal time to yourself away from your business is pivotal in your overall sanity and ability to be a good leader.

Running a small business certainly has its difficulties, and there a million factors that go into the overall success, or lack thereof, of it. I had some really great years in the UofM area, but with the incline of online shopping and the aesthetic decline of that particular location during that time, I struggled for many also.

The most challenging instance that I personally had to endure with my business was two back-to-back break-ins in the spring of 2014. It shut my business completely down, and I was forced to have to relocate. It was a scary time for me and my staff, and the future of Crazy Beautiful was definitely uncertain.

Being a leader in that moment was so incredibly hard, because honestly I didn’t know what to do, and I just wanted someone else to make the decision for me. I let the reality sink in and then started working on another plan, which ultimately led Crazy Beautiful to Overton Square.

It was through that terrible experience that I was given a new opportunity, and it has made me a stronger and wiser business person because of it.

Finding personal time to yourself away from your business is pivotal in your overall sanity and ability to be a good leader.

-Erika Smith

Photo: Stock&Belle

C901: More specifically, what is it like to own a retail clothing store in Memphis. Do you think it is different than it would be owning a shop in a different city, or do you think that location doesn’t really affect your business? Conversely, do you think Memphis has helped facilitate your business and allowed you to grow?

Photo: Crazy Beautiful

ES: Memphis has its pro’s and con’s, but so does every city.  You don’t have to go to business school (Lord knows I didn’t) to know the phrase “Location. Location.Location!” It’s the funndamnental key factor that you are taught in figuring out where to open your business to ensure its success.

Conversely, I’m a big Field of Dreams believer, in that “If you build it, they will come” can definitely play true in certain scenarios. Ultimately, though location was most certainly important to me. Crazy Beautiful’s original target market was young, trendy girls ages 16-25, and I didn’t need a college degree to strategically place my business next to a college campus full of them.

Another definite pro was the affordable rent and an unbelievably amazing landlord, Mike Garibaldi, that took a chance on leasing his space to a young, unexperienced 21-year-old (for which I am forever grateful!). It was the perfect location that thrived for many years, and my customers came from all over the city to shop with me.

C901: Going off that previous question, what are the negatives and the positives of owning a business in Memphis. Is there something Memphis offers that other cities do not?

ES: Memphis often gets a bad rap because of our crime stats, and it’s become a deterrant for some who may have otherwise been interested in moving and/or open a business here. So, many are focused on the negative parts, that we often take for granted just how amazing this city is.

Photo: Crazy Beautiful

Sure, we still have quite a ways to go, but I am optimistic for Memphis’s future and proud to be a part of its growth.

-Erika Smith

Our cost of living is unbeatable compared to other big cities, and the opportunity for success far outweighs any negative stat you can compare it to. We have a talented community of creatives and young entrepreneurs who are hungry and ready for change.

I can’t say I would have had the same opportunities that I have had here anywhere else.  For example, Stock&Belle is able to exist today because of grant incentives that the Downtown Memphis Commission offered to help develop our downtown economy, and they are continually working alongside other small businesses to help bring more commerce to the area.

Sure, we still have quite a ways to go, but I am optimistic for Memphis’s future and proud to be a part of its growth.

Photo: Stock&Belle

C901: Crazy Beautiful made the move from the University of Memphis area to Overton Square. What changes have you noticed between these two Memphis areas? How are they different business-wise, how are they similar?

ES: Most people don’t know this, but Overton Square was actually where I orignially wanted to open Crazy Beautiful. I loved shopping at Scott’s Cosmic Closet when I was younger, and I was obsessed with that koi pond and spiral stairs at the entrance.

The space was available back in 2004 when I was searching for locations, but it was during a time that the Square was struggling, and I knew I wouldn’t have the foot traffic that I needed.  It’s funny that exactly a decade later I have found myself back where I started.

Just as much as location is important, so, too, is timing, and I feel confident that my time is definitely NOW.  Overton Square has been revived, and it exudes an exciting energy as you walk from business to business.

A lot of my customers from the old location have followd me here, but we have also gained so many new shoppers through the exposure of being next to so many other great businesses. Unlike the UofM area that was once mainly centered around just college students, there is a diverse demographic of people that now frequent Overton Square on a regular basis, and that has definitely helped our overall growth as a brand.

Photo: Kim Thomas

Just as much as location is important, so, too, is timing, and I feel confident that my time is definitely NOW.  Overton Square has been revived, and it exudes an exciting energy as you walk from business to business.

-Erika Smith

C901: If there was one thing you could go back and tell your younger self, what would it be?

ES: I would say, it is good to take risks, but they may not always be well received, and that’s ok. I’ve ventured in other business concepts over the years that weren’t executed well, and I kept them alive for longer than I should have for fear of what everyone else may think or say.

Through my experiences, I have realized that at the end of the day, it’s my business and my future, and you should never let other’s speculations and negative banter dictate what is best for you. Trust your intuition (and income statement – Ha!)

C901: If you never went into business ownership, what would you see yourself doing?

ES: I’ve always loved the marketing side of business, figuring out what makes a person buy one product over another. Now more than ever with the new age of technology and the rapid growth of new businesses, it’s fascinating to see modern marketing tactics. I get to dabble in it a little of course in my own business, but in another life I think I would have loved working specifically in that field.

C901: What advice would you leave other Memphians interested in opening a retail store?

ES: Don’t expect it to be easy, but don’t be scared to take a risk. If it’s something you are truly passionate about, then you should do your research and make a solid business plan. There is so much great opportunity to do business in Memphis, and now is as good a time as ever to take a chance on yourself.

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