Mass Ave and Entrepreneurship and Retailers and Small Biz Profiles and Retail and Real Estate & Retail and Small Business

Mass Ave shops thrive 'in the city'

December 29, 2008

Talk to anyone about Kristin Kohn and her "In the City" ventures and you hear the same thing, over and over: Smart. Enthusiastic. Fun. Entrepreneurial. And hardworking, especially when it comes to Massachusetts Avenue.

Since 2000, Kohn has opened three shops on the Indianapolis avenue: Silver in the City, At Home in the City and the recently launched Nurture, which specializes in clothing and accessories for infants and toddlers.

"I wish I could clone Kristin Kohn," said Indianapolis Downtown Inc. President Tamara Zahn. "Her entrepreneur talents plus her get-it-done-and-make-it-fun attitude have been instrumental in Mass Ave's success."

Kohn, who grew up in Emmaus, Pa., came to Indiana to study communications at Purdue University. After graduating, she worked as a graphic designer in Chicago for two years, frequently visiting Indianapolis to hang out with former classmates. Nearly 12 years ago, she moved here.

"I loved downtown. It had the experience I wanted, but I was not getting in Chicago" because of a commute to and from a suburban community, said Kohn, 35. Now married and the mother of two, she lives in Herron-Morton Place near downtown.

She got the retailing bug while a college student on an unpaid internship in Baltimore. To support herself, she worked in Fells Point Boutique, which specialized in clothing and gifts "with a global beat," she said.

The owner of that shop, now a mentor, encouraged Kohn to explore retailing in Indianapolis. In 2000, property became available in the 700 block of Mass Ave and Silver in the City was born.

Several factors explained her interest in silver: It is affordable to consumers and artists alike. It is easy to work with, so artists are more likely to experiment with designs. And she prefers silver and white gold for her own jewelry.

Kohn views Web sites as her biggest competition, even though silver jewelry and home accessories are readily available at larger retailers and jewelry stores.

In her shops, everything is displayed and people can try on what they like, she said. "It's a self-service in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. We do not hover and people don't have to ask us to open cases."

Within a year of opening her silver shop, she moved it to the 400 block of Mass Ave and opened At Home in the City next door. Private investors, including family members, financed the startups, a debt she paid off within three years. Now she operates with banks and lines of credit.

She's selective in her marketing. She supports public broadcasting and advertises in Nuvo, The Indianapolis Star and on WTTS-FM 92.3.

"She's a very savvy marketer," said David Andrichik, who has owned the Chatterbox Jazz Club on Mass Ave for nearly 27 years. He and Kohn are active in the leadership of the Mass Ave Merchants Association, or MAMA.

Kohn is accomplished at everything from the design side of advertising and marketing to networking, he said.

"She does it all without fanfare," said Bill Gray, executive director of the Riley Area Development Corp., whose area includes Mass Ave. His organization developed the property that houses Silver in the City and At Home in the City. "She's a tremendous businesswoman."

It helps that Mass Ave is one of the city's defined cultural districts, but Kohn "has made a tremendous difference with her spirit and with her attitude," Gray said. "And she has great shops that fit so well into what we are all about."

Her empire is expanding. This year, Kohn launched Nurture, a sister store across the street that sells baby and toddler clothing.

Despite the difficult economic environment, she's buoyed by growing consumer interest in local merchants, food and other sustainable practices. Still, she said, "we're managing to maintain sales and planning as if there will be little to no growth" over the next year.

One of Kohn's greatest challenges was opening a Silver in the City store in Lafayette in 2005. The venture lasted 18 months before she closed it down. "It was just too far away. It was a learning experience," she said.

She said she's always on the lookout for ways to improve life on the avenue. She was instrumental in getting other Mass Ave retailers to sell sustainable shopping bags at their shops as an alternative to paper or plastic. And she worked with the city, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Inc. and others to install specially designed recycling bins along the street.

"She is a passionate and devoted community builder in addition to the fact that she is a very talented and capable entrepreneur," said Julia Watson, vice president of marketing and communications for IDI. "She regularly uses her talent and style to influence others for collaborative efforts. She also leads by doing."

Watson credits Kohn as the driving force behind spring and fall gallery walks and other special events like Holiday Hoopla -- joint efforts with IDI's Mass Ave Marketing Committee, the Indianapolis cultural districts and MAMA.

"She is always willing to work and think outside her doors. She has a natural aptitude or understanding that those things that lift the area around her business will also lift her business in some way," Watson said. "While she knows that there has to be a cost-benefit to actions and efforts, she is wise in her understanding of community good."

None of that would be possible if Kohn didn't love what she did. Her advice to others: Take the time to write the business plan.

"It confirms your ideas to others and within yourself. Work the numbers," Kohn said. More important, work at something that "energizes and excites you. If you are only halfway interested, it will be a lot harder."

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