Shop owners are some of the wisest people we know, and Stephanie Shearer is the poster girl for Denver's retail world. She opened Pandora Jewelry on East 13th Avenue in 1993, and followed it with the male-oriented Soul Haus; with help from her mother and her husband, Chris Bacorn, she later transformed the vacant EZE-Mop building at East 17th Avenue and Franklin Street into boutiques, too. More recently, she and Bacorn added Trunk Nouveau and SquadronCo at Stanley Marketplace.
Those stores were thriving until, in the blink of an eye, the COVID-19 crisis shut everything down. No one knows when retail will hit bottom, but with employees laid off and sales dropping, things are in a freefall. Shearer is there to support who and what she can, as she shares her heartfelt views.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Stephanie Shearer: The spirit of my mother, and of her mother. I am lucky enough to have had amazing women early in my life who were "feminists" before it was truly a label (or a bad word, or a good word). I often fail, but truly strive to live generously with my heart and unending compassion for all human life, with no expectation or judgment. I will never be quite as purely proficient as they were, but luckily I am guided by their voices softly whispering into my ear.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Is it so weird that I have mulled and meditated on this question for two days and just do not have an answer? I answered all of the other questions in one quick sit, but this one question has held me up for two days. I think I might need to consult a therapist about this. I am not usually lost for words, but this question has just stumped me. I mean there's the obvious Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson or Robert Rauschenberg, Spalding Gray and Nick Cave (both the artist and the musician). I kind of want to say Adam Ant — but, nah, I don't really want to hang out with him at all. Maybe it is so intimidating to me because it is like the "If you had one wish" question, and of course I would want to say world peace, but I would also want people who are suffering to heal, to save all of the endangered animals and for my Mom to be back — so how does one decide? So I am sorry, my awkward anxiety has caused me to fail...and I don't want to hold this up because of an existential question that has put me in a psychological tailspin. Can I send it to you later if I discover the answer?
What’s the best thing about the local community in your field — and the worst?
Well, I often say that small-businesses owners are literally crazy — like truly fucking batshit — and trying to get us all moving in one direction is like herding cats: wild, insane and lunatic. But in the local retail community in particular, that eccentricity is tremendously electric and creative and innovative and contagious. When we are forced out of our shops by something like, say, a pandemic, it is awesome to watch this community band together and support one another, share resources and lift each other, with each and every voice adding so much value and truth to the conversation.
How can small businesses weather store closures during the coronavirus pandemic?
The good news is that the only way any small business — but especially the "non-essential" small businesses — will come through this economically and socially devastating storm is to pivot, and that is one thing that small businesses do best. Owning a retail store, even before this horrible outbreak, was like swimming upstream, smothered in a squall of salmon. We are often forgotten and dismissed as cute or hobbyists. But there are some really seasoned boutique owners in Denver, and this won't be the first time we have had to go left when everyone is advising businesses to go right.
If the local retail community can build on the sort of loosely woven tapestry of collaboration and communication that it has been weaving together for the last couple of years, we will build our own safety net, and there will be room for everyone. The restaurant community is pretty pro at this one-voice concept, and it is why they have a much more powerful presence at the table. But I think that the only way retailers will make it is if we work together and support each other, because, quite frankly, there will be no bailouts for cute boutiques. Or hair salons. Or the vacuum repair on the corner.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help local small-business owners?
First I want to be clear that I think we have some hardworking people in office right now really making some difficult decisions, and I do not envy their role for one moment. In the new (ab)normal of COVID-19, our leaders — and especially our politicians — are damned if they do, did or don't. I must have been mistakenly placed in someone's Rolodex, because I have been contacted by legislators, senators and our governor to ask what they can do to help small businesses, and I applaud them for asking. But — and I love me some Peña — I can't help but wonder why there isn't a roundtable of actual small businesses, not politicians, with a permanent seat at the task-force table. They are going to need us, and a phone call or a luncheon just isn't going to be enough. We need a task force for small- and medium-sized businesses, full of business owners who are ready to grind, to get Denver and Colorado economically uprighted.
And then, we need our neighbors to really show love to that corner book store, local art supplier or barber shop on the corner. If we do indeed open our mailbox to find a thousand bucks from Uncle Sam, then — if you are able — we need you to spend some of that cash at the corner deli you love so much. I'm dreamin' of one of those robot vacuums, too, but if I buy one from a billionaire online company that doesn't pay federal taxes and doesn't know the names of their co-workers and employees, then I am personally responsible for the permanent loss of my neighbor's bartending gig, or my best-friend's retail merchandiser position. Can we hashtag (because that’s what the kids do) #StimulateSmallBiz — not for the survival of my li'l shop, but for all of the small businesses that make up 99.9% of all business in the US and employ 47.5% of our workforce? Spending local is the only light at the end of this dim, gloomy tunnel.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
I would like to meet a Colorado native who hasn't thought about abandoning ship. I mean, there are so many people moving here, and we just didn't see it coming, so now all the things we love about our state are suddenly deteriorating at the seams. I'm not a transplant hater — I get it: It's gorgeous here, the people are nice and the weather is amazing. But I don't live in Manhattan for a reason, so, yeah, sometimes I fancy a move up north. But at the end of the day, when I am wrapped up all cozy in a bright orange and blue Colorado sunset, this is my home. My people are here, I have history here, and I freakin' love Denver and all her Queen City weirdness.
What’s your dream project?
You mean besides running a baby alpaca rescue? I really would love to be involved with some sort of power-women collaborative. I know so many women who are amazing trailblazers in their respective bubbles, but they don't know each other. The problem is that so many of these “women in business” networking gigs are like slow, torturous solicitation pitches, and none of these self-respecting, fierce ladies would ever attend a gathering like that. It would need to be inspiring, it would need to have teeth, and it would need to be both productive and emotionally satisfying. Like Tinder for smart people. I wonder what all of these brave, independent and inspiring women could accomplish if we were all in one room and working together. I am sure the establishment would be terrified.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Who answers this? How the heck can anyone answer this question? We have so many amazingly talented creatives: Michelle Baldwin, Dana Cain, Lonnie Hanzon, Mona Lucero, Delton Demarest, Crystal O'Brien, Peter Yumi, Cal Duran, Brandi Shigley, and oh, my gosh, can't forget Jeff Campbell, Chris Bagley, Phil Bender, Arthur Williams, Andrew effin' Novick, the kids behind Shiki Dreams, Jill Mustoffa, Javier Flores, Mark Sink, Laurie Lynnxe Murphy, Karl Krumpholtz, Ladies Fancywork and the always brilliant Frank Kwiatkowski. There are so many, many more gallery owners, musicians, art philanthropists and scholars — I am totally not worthy to answer this question.
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What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Well, now that the world is upside down and backwards, I'm not sure. I had been sort of slowly pawing at some mentoring opportunities that had recently been presented to me, maybe a little public speaking and helping the certifiable crazy people that for some reason think that owning a small business is a good idea. I love my stores and my community and am not going anywhere, but from the ten thousand mistakes I have made along the way, I have learned two or three things, and I am eager to share. Incubating is a language that I am anxious to speak. I won a small business achievement award from the Aurora South Metro SBDC that I was to receive on the legislative floor with a fancy cocktail party at the Gov's house to follow, but the mandatory closures quashed that soirée. It’s okay — I didn't know what the heck I was going to wear anyway.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Jason Stoval aka Sid Pink. He has been a prominent figure in Denver's underbelly art world for a very, very long time. He has always volunteered for, hooked up and pissed off just about everyone I know. He is an often-crass, always-rude and insulting man with the most ginormous heart. Having been involved in a tragic accident in Paris, he is healing from a rather severe traumatic brain injury. Now that he is able to return home, I hope that the entire art/burlesque/music and creative community will rally around him and help him to remember the snarky damn lounge lizard that he is. That's the thing about Denver that recent transplants may not fully realize: At the end of the day, Denver is just a really, really small cowtown disguised as a big city — and when the proverbial cow dung hits the fan, we throw on our shit kickers and get to work supporting one another.