October was a busy month for Ambrosia Johnson.
In addition to a rigorous daily routine with her four kids and her husband, she appeared in a play at the Corrib Theater in Northwest Portland and hosted two parties for Halloween. All of this took place while Johnson also was running The Lamb Boutique, her retail shop at The Market Hall in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood.
The boutique is something Johnson has been thinking about for a long time. She had found success as an entrepreneur creating gift boxes with her daughter that they sold at church events and hosting private, corporate and public painting parties. But the idea of creating retail business was never far from her mind.
"I really wanted to venture into clothing. I wanted to be able to provide a wide range of items from businesses that were unique and have them all in one place," Johnson told Opportunity Magazine. "That's one thing that I haven't seen here in Portland. A lot of times I had to go online and search in other cities. I said we should have something like that here that has unique items from other minority-owned businesses as well, but would also be inclusive."
By the time she was ready to step away from gift baskets and painting parties to finally start her dream business, the pandemic was under way. She knew leasing a space and opening a boutique would be a challenge due to in-person limitations related to COVID, so she began looking for an alternative. Her husband, Phillip, was leasing a suite of offices that he had been using as a studio for his music. However, he wasn't using the space at the time.
"I told him, 'I'm going to take this over and use it for launching my business," Johnson said.
She created a walk-in closet boutique inside part of the office space and used the rest as storage for inventory. Customers would book online and then come in for a personal shopping experience. Johnson was working a full-time job at the time and could only open the shop on the weekends, but the boutique was so successful even with limited availability that she began to consider moving the boutique to a more visible location.
"After the pandemic I was really praying," Johnson said. "I wanted to move to the next level, and I knew I couldn't just be inside an office building. People needed to be able walk by, see it and just walk in."
Johnson knew most retail spaces were larger — and more expensive — than what she wanted or needed for her boutique. She approached some other entrepreneurs she knew who designed and made clothing to join her as partners, but they weren't ready to make the leap.
Then Johnson heard about the micro-retail spaces opening up at the Market Hall in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood. The Market Hall space she looked at was about half the size of the boutique closet spaces she had in the office building, but it offered the promise of street visibility.
"I thought this is good first step and a good start for me," Johnson said.
By the time February rolled around at the beginning of 2022, Johnson was packing up her inventory from the suite of offices and painting and prepping her new micro-space at the Market Hall. She moved what she knew she would want to highlight and display to the new boutique location and put the rest in storage.
The Market Hall is part of Rockwood Rising, a multi-building development that aims to provide affordable and market-rate housing, job and entrepreneurship opportunities for a community that has been billed as having one of the highest poverty rates in the Portland metro area. The Market Hall, which features a series of micro-spaces for retail and food businesses owned by BIPOC and women entrepreneurs, had just opened when Johnson arrived. She and Tralice Lewis, who runs a shop called Callie's Custom Hat Wigs in the suite next door to The Lamb Boutique, were the first vendors to hang "open for business" signs on the doors of their suites at the Market Hall.
"I already had all of my (inventory) at a different location," Johnson said. "I just had to move it. So, it was easier for me than someone with a restaurant who has to buy all of their equipment and do their layout and permits. I didn't have to do all that."
Although the micro-retail space The Lamb Boutique occupies is half the size of the office space Johnson left, she designed it in a way that provides maximum display space. Modular shelving creates niches for showing off hats, jewelry and water bottles with the Lamb Boutique logo as well as spaces to hang clothing.
Still, the retail space has some drawbacks. One of the biggest, according to Johnson, is a lack of a storeroom for back-up and seasonal inventory. So, Johnson has had to improvise. When new inventory arrives, for example, she has it delivered to her home, where she sorts it and then stores it in her garage.
The small space also means she has had to adjust how she orders inventory. Johnson likes to offer sizes from small to 3X to have a variety to meet the needs of every customer who comes in. However, ordering wholesale often means ordering a package with two of each size. "I don't aways have enough space to keep all of it in the shop," Johnson said.
The Market Hall has been open for less than a year. While word is spreading that there are new opportunities to shop and support BIPOC — and women-owned micro businesses in Rockwood, there still are days when customer counts are low. With an eye toward boosting foot-traffic for all of the retail and food businesses in the Market Hall, Johnson and Lewis make the rounds at events such as farmers markets and seasonal fairs and shows in the Portland metro area. They set up booths for their respective business and use the face-time with customers to talk about the Market Hall and the wide range of businesses located there.
"Tralice and I … (have) been working hard getting people to realize what's going on (at the Market Hall) and all the businesses and the services we provide," Johnson said.
Those promotional efforts, however, come with their own challenges. Trying to figure out what's going to sell from her range of inventory is just the first step.
"Being out and doing markets and events are a whole other business. I have to pack up half my store or pull things out of my garage ... and take them to the (event). Whatever doesn't sell, I have to pack it up, bring it back and put it back where it belongs, which takes a couple of days. At the same time, people are coming into the store while I'm trying to unpack and put everything back."
Most of those outside events charge fees to have a booth. So, Johnson and Lewis face the risk of losing money if they don't sell at least as much as they spend on fees. Markets and fairs also often run for several consecutive days, so if the entrepreneurs can't find a friend or family members to man their shops, they have to close for however long the specific event lasts.
Despite the challenges, Johnson said she feels being a de-facto goodwill ambassador for the Market Hall is important, not just to the Market Hall business tenants but to the community of Rockwood at large.
"I always tell people (at the events I attend), this is where I'm located. This is the food that's available (at the Market Hall)," she said. "This is what the city of Gresham is trying to do here. We're really trying to revitalize this community. Come out, eat, shop. Hang out with us. Just come out and say hi."
As Johnson has organized the space in her garage to accommodate inventory for her boutique, she has realized she still has a large quantity of paint and craft supplies from when she provided private, corporate and public parties. She also has boxes and boxes of jewelry, paintings, cups, journals and other items she used for her gift box business.
Rather than having the items sit around gather dust, she has decided to use them to increase revenue streams to make her business more resilient in weathering possible future market shifts.
"I'm getting back to diversifying the services I provide. I'm getting back into doing paint parties … just getting back into it," she said.
She's losing no time in returning to party mode. This past October, for example, she held a Halloween party for families that featured crafts and treats in the main indoor space at the Market Hall. The event offered kids a chance to make mini paper bag monsters and paint mini pumpkins. She's hoping to host more events — including some of the paint parties she's re-launching — at the Market Hall, with an eye toward helping her fellow small business tenants.
"I've been thinking, what if, instead of renting (space in a hotel) for my paint parties, I hold them (at the Market Hall)?" she said. "I'd bring in people, encourage them to shop, buy food."
A packed calendar
Johnson keeps a busy schedule. Even with her boutique and her role as a mom to four kids, she's managed to also follow her interests in acting and dancing. She's also active in activities with her church.
"I try to do things I'm passionate about, and that's fulfilling, even if it's a lot of work," she said. "Yeah, I'm juggling trying to get to the kids to activities, being at the shop, doing events … but it's really rewarding. It doesn't feel as much like work."
She's quick to note that her ability to successfully keep so many balls in the air isn't a solo effort. Her husband is also an entrepreneur with several active businesses. In addition to working with his dad in the family business Bishop & Sons Baked Goods, Phillip is a musician. His past projects include forming a ministry gospel hip-hop group called Lifted. Now a solo artist, he's been busy submitting music for placement with television shows and commercials.
Earlier this year, the couple made the mutual decision to step away from their full-time jobs in the social work field to focus on growing their businesses. Ambrosia Johnson admits the decision was scary and exhilarating at the same time. But she said it helps to know they have each other to cheer on — and support.
"We made a leap of faith, both at the same time," Johnson said. "We're still like, we're still okay. We're still doing it."
With multiple businesses and four kids, Johnson admits life can be hectic. However, she and Phillip share responsibilities and make sure they reserve every Sunday as a day focused on church and family. In addition, they have a strong support network of trusted family members, including parents and siblings.
Johnson says she also learning how to keep herself centered despite a busy schedule.
"What I've been learning over the years is balance, trying to have balance and when to say no. I don't like to do things if they aren't fruitful or if they're not done with the right intent or if they're rushed. But I also don't get easily frustrated," she said. "I put in my work. I put in my time. I'm going to get something out of it. I may not see the fruit of my labor today. It maybe three or four weeks from now. You never know what's going to happen from what you're doing. But I always try to do my best."
The Lamb Boutique
Owner: Ambrosia Johnson
Address: Rockwood Market Hall, 458 S.E Stark St., suite 114, Gresham
Facebook: @The Lamb Boutique