Interview by: Eden Raskin-Jenkins, Portraits: Jeff Martin
If you have ever wandered through Salt & Sundry and felt the desperate pangs of home décor inferiority and the instant need to completely redecorate, you are not alone. While some might feel intimidated by the aesthetic perfection achieved at both the Logan Circle and Union Market locations, Amanda McClements‘ main goal is to connect her customers with her vendors by telling their unique story.
For the first edition of our new “DC Dream Jobs” column, we sat down with Amanda and spoke with her about the path she has taken to get where she is today, and found what is most important and inspiring in what she has done is her “habit” of making her passions her jobs. An idea that is so simple yet required her to take huge risks. Fun fact: Amanda’s ONLY retail experience is from her teenage years at Durham Sporting Goods.
It’s hard to believe that the home wares curator of all things bohemian-industrial-chic didn’t always have a twinkle of Salt & Sundry in her eye, and instead the two stores are a result of her not standing in her own way, and trusting that she had control over molding her own experience—just a few important lessons she learned during her journey.
BYT: What was your first job?
Amanda McClements: Ever?
AM: I was 15 and was as a waitress at a restaurant named Antonio’s in a strip mall in Durham. I worked there for about two years, but also took on other jobs during that time.
BYT: Walk us through your past jobs.
AM: I was really attracted to journalism, and when I look back on it now, I realize that I like story telling and telling people about people who are doing cool things and places that are great, and great things to eat. So I started writing for the high school newspaper, and was editor-in-chief. The woman I credit with so much learning was the advisor at my high school newspaper.
Then I went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill and majored in journalism. At that point, I was burned out on writing and didn’t think writing was what I wanted to do full time and thought the design side of journalism was where I wanted to be. I thought I would be doing sexy layouts for National Geographic or going on location to shoot different stories. I came to DC in 2000 because my boyfriend now husband was living here at the time. I think DC is a really livable big city. It is kind of a choose your own adventure city. I didn’t know I was moving here at the most perfect time to witness the most massive growth spurt.
Once in DC I got a job at a technology magazine, and got into the design, editing, layout, copy editing–I am a copy editing stickler (Amanda, please forgive any grammatical errors in this feature), and worked there for a couple of years, and then moved to Roll Call newspaper when I was 25 or 26. At that point, I was still doing design, graphics, editing, and layout. I started to feel like if I could write about something I cared enough about maybe it would be a cool career to pursue. So I pitched Roll Call on doing some food coverage and started a bi monthly food column. This was right when Penn Quarter and all the area around the Verizon Center was starting to happen, and there was so much food news to cover and I was interested in it just from a personal standpoint, because I liked going out to eat and exploring new foods. So I wrote about food for Roll Call in addition to my other jobs and just fell in love with what was happening in the food scene, and how supportive the chef community was of each other. I had started freelancing, and I finally decided I had enough freelancing gigs to go full time freelance. So I quit my job and started freelancing in 2005.
BYT: Was that a scary decision to make?
AM: Yea, it was. My boyfriend at the time–now my husband said “you should start a blog to share all this extra information from the work you are doing,” and I had to ask what a blog was. It was literally at the dawn of blogger. One weekend I logged into blogger.com, and started Metrocurean, and that kind of took on a life of its own. I had been freelancing for Food & Wine Magazine, and am still a correspondent for them, and trying to get paid print gigs, and the blog was kind of this secondary thing that was a place where I put all of this extra information that I was privy to. It was a fun run–I blogged until 2011/2012, so 5, 6 or 7 years. I started to find myself gravitating more towards design and entertaining and I was at a point where I started to look at doing something different. I didn’t know what that was, and had no ideas about what I was going to do next.
BYT: So, how did you decide to open Salt & Sundry?
AM: I never dreamed I would own a shop, and I during the 2011 Holidays, I was trying to buy all of my Holiday gifts at local retailers, and saw an opening for a lot of the products I loved and was having to hunt down, either in vintage stores or online. Friends started to encourage me to open my own shop, and told me I had great taste, but I don’t what great taste is–I have my own taste, but I didn’t feel like it was anything special or that I would be good at this for any reason. I was terrified of a brick and mortar business thinking nobody buys anything in stores anymore, everyone shops on amazon.com. And then about 11 months after that little twinkle in my eye the Union Market store opened. So it was very fast, which was good because I didn’t have a chance to get too scared. I had to fight through a lot of insecurity. I am not a risk taker. It might look like I am from the outside but I’m not. It was a very uncomfortable process, but I wanted to do it, because I got attached to the idea. But it was not easy to talk myself out of all the worst-case scenarios.
BYT: How did you overcome the fear of opening your own brick and mortar shop and becoming a freelancer in 2005, and quitting your job? What drove you to take those big steps?
AM: When I think about other people that do similar things or people in the creative community, I think the common thread is that you don’t want to work in an office. And it just feels like there is something more—that you could be doing something different with yourself every day. And that is what took me away from more traditional jobs. And I finally decided that the only way to find out if it was going to work was to try it. I had to be comfortable with the possibility of failure, so that’s how I finally kicked myself out of the rut of doubt.
BYT: What was the hardest part about opening a brick and mortar store?
AM: The hardest part about opening a store was navigating the financials, taxes, and regulations. The fun part was picking products, because that’s what I love. The not fun part was figuring out how to run a business.
BYT: What is the most challenging part of owning your own business and what is the most rewarding? What keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning?
AM: What keeps me up at night is all of the millions of little balls you have in the air at any given time, and as an independent sole business owner there is no one, at the end of the day, who those are going to fall on except you and it never stops. There is no end to the small issues that come up, but what motivates me is coming in and seeing how happy we make people, and I love connecting the vendor with the customer through their products. That whole connecting piece of it, I love. I love the storytelling part of it, in the same way I did when I was food writing, it’s like storytelling in a different platform. I also have the most amazing team. There is a real sense of pride in knowing you have created jobs for people, and that they love what they do. And that we get to work in a creative environment is very rewarding and that gets me through the grind. When you love what you do, your life is one in the same as your work, and I keep making my passions my jobs. That’s where the magic is—making your hobbies your job.
BYT: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
AM: When I was trying to gather as much information as possible before deciding to open my store, I met with Kassie Rempel [Simply Soles] and Jackie Flanagan [Nana’s]. I was really in the nitty gritty, and assuming opening a store would ruin my life. Jackie said, “Just try it. It’s just life. What’s going to happen?” To distill that it would be, if you have a tendency to over think things, just get out of your own way. And if you have a gut feeling that something will work just try it and if you fall down and embarrass yourself then you can just do something else.
BYT: Is that the piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
AM: I would tell my younger self don’t look to other people for truths. Nobody knows what your experience is going to be like and you have some control over how your experience shapes up. I kept thinking that there were universal truths and that there was a definitive answer of what it would be like to own a retail store. I was looking for someone to say, “this is what your life is like, this is what your free time is like, this is what it’s like managing people,” but there are no universal truths. I was thinking there was an answer when really you have to trust that you will make the experience what you want it to be. I would tell my younger self your experience is going to be unique to you and stop worrying about what other people’s experiences are like.
BYT: Who is your role model?
AM: I don’t have a single role model. I have, as one of my friends likes to put it, a personal Board of Directors. Friends who are big cheerleaders of anything I do. My husband is the grounding voice at the end of the day. He puts things in perspective like nobody I know and talks me down off of many a ledge, and my staff too. Seeing my staff be engaged and inspired by what they do inspires me.
BYT: What have been your highest highs and your lowest lows?
AM: Honestly, I look at it a little bit differently. I’ve been trying to neutralize my reactions to situations. My dad once called me unflappable; however there have been moments. I remember before opening the second store realizing we were in a real financial bind, and just thinking what happens now and I have to figure this out. I can’t just go and hide in the closet and hope that somebody else fixes this; I’m the only person that is going to fix it. But, I think, for me, I see small things as highs, like that little interaction you have with someone and think this is my happy place. I mean we’ve had some fun things: good press is always nice, we got to go up to Grand Central Station with Martha Stewart American Made, but those to me look like a high point from the outside but it’s much more about the day to day and trying to neutralize your reactions to the low. It’s only a low if you think of it that way or its just business. Is it a problem if it doesn’t have a solution? You can totally change the way you look at a problem.
BYT: You talk about your staff a lot and how amazing they are. Are there other people you have worked with that have really inspired you?
AM: I would say the community of creators. Seeing people like Sarah Gordon and Sheila Fain of Gordy’s Pickles who are so driven by quality and a lot of the people we work with are obsessed with quality and the vision that they have, and sticking to their vision and being true to it. That is eternally inspirational. We meet new people like that every day because the creative community is growing across the country. Hearing the stories of this huge network of small business owners, food makers, crafters, carpenters is super inspirational.
BYT: Is there anyone you are hoping to collaborate with?
AM: Too many to name. Well, I want every food vendor we sell to make us an exclusive product or do our own line. I have this book in my brain, but the second store happened, and you only have time to do so many things in a day. That is a goal of mine.
BYT: What is a common thread between your current and past jobs?
AM: I really like the tangible nature of running a shop. I also always really liked the newspaper production side. When I worked for the Raleigh newspaper while I was in college and Roll Call newspaper, we created a product that came out the next day and held it in your hands, and there was something very tangible and satisfying about that and having a brick and mortar store is all tangible. In the shop setting you have the immediate feedback.
BYT: What is next for you in 1, 5 and 10 years?
AM: Oh my gosh, I am the worst person to ask that question, because I do not think in those terms. I am so shortsighted. I don’t really know what I’m doing beyond the next couple of days. I like to think that Salt & Sundry will continue to grow in a thoughtful way. I’m really conscious of that and maintaining a healthy balance between owning a shop and enjoying life. If I can do that at 1, 5 and 10 years, success!