Life in Focus
Johnson opens The Big Picture
Everyone has been there, or probably will be at some point in their lives. Something “big” happens that takes people out of their element, changes who they think they are, or what they should be doing in life. Many times, perspectives changes and priorities are brought in to sharper focus.
Such was the case for Pam Johnson, Fort Dodge. For Johnson, it was the sharper focus of a dream she’d had for some time that ultimately led to her open a business in downtown Webster City. In a small shop on the southwest corner of Second Street and Willson, you will find, “The Big Picture.”
Johnson grew up in Fort Dodge, but left in 1974 to attend school in Iowa City. Pursuing her education, attending colleges in different parts of the country, she obtained an undergraduate degree in recreational administration, then a master’s degree in physical education and later, a second master’s degree in industrial relations.
The direction of her career changed as she began working in human resources, did executive recruiting, and then transitioned to human resource work in general. She was Director of Human Resources at Target in Minneapolis, and later, at United Health Group. She also worked with some small businesses, consulting over the years. She was living in Minneapolis at the time, where she spent 20 years building her career. It was while in Minneapolis that something big intersected her path. And it came in a wave of challenges that could have been her undoing. She was diagnosed with cancer, lost her father, became separated, turned 50, and lost her job at United Health Group through downsizing. There was also a divorce and a hysterectomy. Everything happened within the course of two years, according to Johnson. The story of her fight with breast cancer was featured in the Daily Freeman-Journal’s October 2016 Our Hometown issue during National Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Other family circumstances eventually brought her back to Iowa, and then to Fort Dodge, where she settled so she could take care of her mom. She was still doing consulting work at the time, but knew in her heart that having a shop was really what she wanted.
Johnson already had a business called Reading Goddess.
“It’s a business I have that leverages the power of women who like to read, to make a difference in literacy. That’s where this all started,” she said. “I started it with a branded product line. I had things associated with reading and relaxation, like wine glasses, candles, bookmarks, bathrobes. So that’s the umbrella.”
“I also have a couple of books in the background about 75 percent completed that I would like to finish and publish through Reading Goddess Press. So these are like big pipe dreams stuff,” said Johnson. “I would like the books to serve an altruistic purpose for schools and libraries.” One book is based on her own personal insights and experiences, much of which is related to her battle with cancer. It is full of the kinds of things she would want her daughter to know, if she were not here to tell her. “The other book is Lyrics for Literacy. Because I am really into music as well. It is just a compilation of lyrics from songs because music is the great connector,” said Johnson.
At one point, while still in Minneapolis, Johnson also had an hour long radio show that highlighted nonprofits, supporting literacy, and it included co-hosts, author interviews and other guests. It was a nice format but got never picked up, she noted.
“So with Reading Goddess you have the products, the radio show, the publishing. Then you have The Big Picture. The name is intentional, because I believe if we all do a little, you can accomplish a lot. At the foundation of what I am. trying to do is, support literacy. That’s my gig,” said Johnson.
“How we do that here is, by giving 20 percent off to teachers and librarians, and we collect change, donations. And then, if people consign I do 50/50. If they donate items, I do 40/60 so I take 40 percent and give 60 percent to the library,” she said. “At the last quarterly chamber meeting, there was $45 worth of change. Someone had donated things that amounted to another $43. With mine and others contributions, there was about $125 in all. It’s a little, but if we do that every quarter it adds up,” she said. “Hopefully it will be more. So that’s what is at the bottom of this, I really want to make sure I give back to the community.” It is one piece of the big picture that is really important to her, she said, and stressed that support for her business, helps support literacy.
“Webster City has been so welcoming and supportive,” she said. “Chamber Director, Deb Brown, who found this location for me, has been great and the Mayor and his wife spent an entire Sunday filling a dumpster helping get the shop ready,” she said. “Connie and Ron Gilbert own the building. They worked with the chamber and as part of an incubator program for small businesses. They provided three months of free rent, and another nine months at a reduced rate so I could get things going and have some time to build the business.”
Open for Crazy Day
Her lease started in May 2016. She wanted to be open in time for Crazy Day and opened her door July 23. Part of getting ready to open the shop involved going to estate sales for big items like furniture. Collecting for two years, she went to thrift stores and just started gathering things. When she first opened, she had enough collected to fill about a third of her space. She has continued to work her way towards the back and now has filled the entire shop after a huge push for Ladies Night Out in October 2016.
“Ladies Night Out was fabulous, with a couple hundred attending. There was a lot of traffic and it was wonderful,” Johnson said. “The feedback was great but the real challenge is, how do you get those people back in.” Traffic has not always been what she hoped for, she admitted. She is still anticipating a grand opening/open house but the date has not been set yet.
She keeps inventory turning over through her love of the hunt, local vendors and her consigners. She promotes specialty vendors, from those who make jewelry to driftwood pieces of art. She is open to considering new, creative vendors. And she enjoys going to Minneapolis to make the rounds of their thrift shops, often bringing a car load back. She plans to start doing more of that, as well as going to estate sales and auctions. “The hunt is the fun of it,” she said. “My inventory changes all the time so there is always something new to see.”
She also loves making a connection with the customer, and sharing the history of a piece they are considering. She loves matching a customer to an item that a consigner has brought in, knowing that something once cherished goes to a new home, or a donated item sells, and a large part of that sale helps the library.
“I would like to get more local vendors, keep it very eclectic,” she said. She hopes to add a retail line that features affordable wine and kitchen accessories. She currently has furniture, vintage pieces, and repurposed things. Glassware, artwork, dishes, antiques, clothing, kitchen accessories, serving pieces, and wine racks can be found in the shop. Ken Ambrose, Hamilton Antiques, has pieces in the shop, industrial, architectural and unique vintage items. “You never know what you’ll find.You can come here and spend 25 dollars and get a lot of stuff. Many people that come in are gift shopping. They come in for one of a kind or hard to find, totally unique gifts,” said Johnson.
Johnson truly loves what she is doing right now. “I really love what I’m doing. I just love it. I love talking to the people who come into shop, love working with consigners who bring things in that have their own stories, love meeting people from out of town, sometimes learning their story. Having dialogues with people is part of the fun,” she said.
But she knows that her passion for literacy, the hunt, the shop, and the people she encounters is not enough. Once open, her concern, as with any small business owners, became sustainability. “The reality is, if the foot traffic does not come through the front door, small shops like mine can’t and won’t stay open,” she said, hoping people will remember to shop local. “It’s easy. It stays in the community and you might be paying for someone’s piano or dance lesson. Or in the case of The Big Picture, you will be helping support literacy by supporting the local library.” She said.
“If people are from out of town I ask them what other places they have been to, what are they looking for, do they want some ideas, and are they having coffee or lunch? With so many wonderful shops in Webster City she believes Webster City should be thought of as a destination. “If you think about it, people can come here and go to ten or 12 places,” she said.
“I think it truly takes a village. If we want new businesses to come here, and we do, then the businesses already here need to be supported,” she said. Her belief is that it takes more than just the customers that come in to buy something. It takes local residents, as well as city leaders, who are willing to make an effort to become familiar with their local businesses. By stopping in to find out things such as what businesses have to offer, and making the most of opportunities to share that information with other people, it will help local businesses survive. She has also had people come in that learned about the shop from face book, and not necessarily from her page but other’s. “That’s good too, if you just comment on your page about the shop,” she said.
“I would really just stress how much we appreciate it when people shop local,” Johnson said. “People have yet to find what undiscovered treasures there are right in their own back yard,” she stressed. “Even if you don’t need something, stop in and look around and then tell other people about it. It helps to know what the town, and local businesses have to offer when friends or family come to visit. If you know those things about your community, then you’re really seeing the big picture.”