It’s your best friend’s birthday soon, so you hop online or stop by your local gift shop to see what you can find to make her feel as if you know her better than any other person in the whole world. You scroll or stroll through widgets and tchotchkes until suddenly, you stop. There it is. You smile to yourself as you imagine your friend’s face as she opens this perfectly selected gift, a memento sure to remind her of your love and affection every time she sees it.
This is the experience Julie Mitchell, owner of Fig & Oak gift shop, relishes observing from every shopper in her store, whether in-person or online. “We want to create an experience at Fig & Oak—an atmosphere that makes you feel part of the family and part of the community. We want you to feel invited, welcome, accepted, and loved.”
The community connections and hearing the “why” behind each and every purchase brings meaning and joy to being a store owner. “The people coming in and conversations we’ve had, so many deep stories and conversations,” they all create a special bond between shop owner and shopper. “It’s special to be a part of the community. Your heart swells.”
From Stay-at-Home Mom to Woman-Owned Business
Julie is self-proclaimed risk averse and admits it never occurred to her she’d be in business for herself. When the store first opened, “I kept thinking of it as a hobby together while he still had a real job,” laughs Julie. Her husband, John, who is a solopreneur himself, had talked with Julie in the past about going into business for themselves someday, but the anxiety of leaving behind the security of a biweekly paycheck and healthcare benefits made it seem to Julie like an unlikely dream.
Before opening her shop, Julie was a stay-at-home mom. Once her boys were in school regularly, Julie began to talk with her mom about ways they could do something tangible to help people in their community and elsewhere. They talked about making meals or cleaning houses, and she also thought about going back to college, but nothing really ignited her passions. She worked for a time with another gift shop owner in town, and that experience gave her confidence about working in the retail space. Julie and John both have a knack for creativity and design, and the two of them began to dream about what it might be like to open a gift shop of their own. Once the wheels were in motion, the idea of the store became the only thing the two talked about. Soon, a space on Main Street in Ashland, Ohio opened, and the two began making plans for how they’d stock the store.
Shop with Purpose: Mission-Driven Wholesalers
While Julie delights in finding unique pieces to share with her shoppers, the root of the store’s success is in its business model and slogan, “Shop with Purpose.” When Julie and John first began dreaming about the store, they wanted to find a way to make every purchase have meaning, above and beyond the sentimental gift for a loved one. This meant seeking out wholesalers who shared the Mitchells’ purpose-driven mentality.
As a result, the majority of the store’s products have some kind of cause related to their creation and give back a portion of their revenue to support that cause. These “gifts with purpose” are the foundation of Fig & Oak. They found Happy Thoughts candles, which support suicide awareness, in Sullivan, Ohio. Then they discovered Banded Headbands, which donates three meals for every product sold. The more they hunted for wholesalers, the more people they found that shared the same purpose and vision.
When choosing wholesalers, Julie looks for unique products. It’s a bonus when that wholesale partnership evolves into a relationship. “We know Josh and his parents (Happy Thoughts) and could sit down to have dinner with them,” says Julie. There’s a relational component even with larger suppliers. “Building relationships with each company has been really fun. It’s kind of the same as what you find in a running community—we’re all passionate about what we’re doing.”
Shop with Purpose: Charity Boxes
When the store first opened, a large portion of their stock was repurposed and upcycled finds from thrift stores and flea markets. John used his craftsmanship and design abilities to build unique pieces for sale in the store. These and other items they might sell wouldn’t have that direct tie to a charitable organization, but they still wanted to make those sales have a purpose as well. One night, after they had been researching other stores and talking together about what the store might look like, John said, “What if we do a charity box system?” The idea took root.
Every shopper has an opportunity to choose from three charities when they check out. Their transaction counts as one “vote.” Every six months, the store adds up the number of votes and calculates the percentage of votes each charity received. Based on that percentage, a portion of every purchase price is paid forward.
The charities change from season to season. They are currently giving back to Ashland Church Community Emergency Shelter Service, or ACCESS (a local organization that supports the homeless in Ashland, Ohio), the Parkinson’s Foundation (Julie’s dad has Parkinson’s), and Charity Water (Their two boys who are actively involved with the store selected this charity. Charity Water exists to solve the fact that 1 out of 10 people across the globe do not have access to clean water.).
The Impact page on Fig & Oak’s website shows just how much of an impact shoppers have made just in the first couple of years of business.
“Everything we do has a purpose,” John says. “It also brings awareness. You might be able to get the same thing for a little less at WalMart, but these things spark conversations over and over.” Julie can’t count the number of times she’s heard a parent explain to a curious child how some people don’t have access to clean water, or how some people don’t have a house to go home to. This small decision at the end of every purchase spreads empathy and awareness, and through those small acts of kindness, worlds change.
The majority of the store’s stock when they first opened was repurposed and original items, but as the store grew in popularity and operating hours were extended, that emphasis shifted toward gift items and finding more meaningful partnerships with vendors. Still, every purchase, whether the vendor is giving to a charity of their choice already, is included in the store’s personal tally of charitable giving.
The store is a vehicle of connection between customer and cause. “People are making a difference because they are shopping with us. They’re the ones who are making a difference.”
You can make a difference and find just the right special gift for that best friend or family member when you shop at Fig & Oak. Visit their in-person location in Ashland, Ohio or shop online. The store also has a delightful presence on Facebook and Instagram; you’ll want to follow Fig & Oak for bright spots of joy and of course, features of new products.