Civil Alchemy

WHAT WE LOVE: Established in 2017, lifestyle shop Civil Alchemy is a beautifully styled mini-department store featuring a unique mix goods. The historic building’s architectural features and soaring ceiling heights is a stunning space to showcase wares for the home and garden, clothing and accessories, a charming children’s section, fresh and dried flowers, speciality spirits and wine, provisions and more.

WHO: Mother and son duo, Kelley Barr and Ian Van Dam, who are also the shopkeepers of sister business, Field Theory. At Field Theory they took their outdoors apparel business and mens clothing category out of Civil Alchemy, expanded the offering and moved it into its own shop across the street. They are also involved in the family gin-distilling business, Truly Floral, and tavern, The Frisco.

WHERE: In the  Old Orchard historic district Webster Groves, located just outside of Saint Louis, Missouri.

THE SHOP

Please describe in your opinion what makes your shop unique. Our 3000 Sq ft Store has an extremely wide range of categories curated. We take a lot of pride in what we have been able to build with such a small team and within the confines of our shop. In 2018 we launched our own gin brand called Truly Floral Spirits, which is distributed across Missouri and a few other states around the United States. We also have our own brand collection of housewares, accessories, tools and more that is stocked by around 300 independent shops around the US and Canada. Working on Europe and Japan next hopefully! We are extremely proud of our ability to curate a wide array of products in so many different sales channels.

Why did you choose the name Civil Alchemy? We joked that we were making a witches brew of all of our favorite hobbies, pastimes and inspirations. Working on Gin, crafting our own array of Seed Mixes. We truly were City (Civil) Witches (Alchemy) working on our retail crafts.

What are Civil Alchemy “must-have”products? Our Gin is a must have product for any Cocktail enthusiast. We also have a stunning line of Leather bags and Hats that are a customer favorite. Don’t forget about the lightweight wool block printed scarves!

Where are Civil Alchemy products sourced and made? About 20% of the products we curate in our shop are our own designs that we have produced for us worldwide, everywhere from Rajasthan, India to just down the street from our shop here in Saint Louis.

Who are Civil Alchemy’s customers? We have such a diverse audience, since we have so many different categories. Although there is a unifying spirit in all of the products we sell, different customers have connected with our goods. We have a very diverse age audience as well. When you sell Flowers, Wine, Dresses, Eyewear, Jewelry, Glass and Barware all in one space, you are bound to see a beautifully diverse community of customers.

How has the internet impacted your business? We opened Civil Alchemy in spite of the internet. We were very moved by the resurgence of Brick & Mortars that happened about 10 years ago. Kelley had owned and operated several stores over her 30 year career. But Civil Alchemy was the most ambitious conceptually. We wanted to create a space that you had to see in person. But we also knew how important the internet would be to getting people to interact with the brand via Social Media and our Online shop.

Did you adapt your business because of the pandemic? The Pandemic definitely changed our business, and looking back, it changed our business in really positive ways. When the first lockdown happened, we needed to take a step back and identify our weak points. We were forced to roll up our sleeves to get creative about how we reached customers and sold products. Luckily, we were able to keep our business afloat during the early part of the pandemic because we sold wine, beer and spirits. Seemingly the only thing people wanted right about then. But this helped us stay afloat until one by one, other categories started to pick up. Flowers, Gifts, then finally Apparel and Accessories turned back on. By the second half 2020 our sales were actually higher than the previous year. We were stunned, but I think we really credit that to an extremely loyal, supportive base of customers in our immediate neighborhood. Also, we saw categories that were historically not our best categories turn on and stay hot far after the Pandemic, like our wine selection. We also really improved our website and ecommerce, and pushed into new markets with wholesale. 

THE SHOPKEEPERS

The shopkeepers at Civil Alchemy

Kelley Barr & Ian Van Dam, shopkeepers at Civil Alchemy

Who inspires you? My Mother

What inspires you? The Outdoors. We love to fish, and spend a lot of time hiking, foraging, camping, gardening, fly fishing in a variety of places. Every corner of this amazing planet inspires us, from the Forests and Lakes of Northern Michigan to the Cliffs, Rocks and Rivers of the Ozarks.

Before I was a shopkeeper, I…. have been in retail since just after I Graduated from High School in the Mid-80’s. Being a Shopkeeper is a lifelong career for me. Ian, my son, grew up in this world with me, traveling to tradeshows, playing in the various shops along the way, and eventually working the shops as early as Middle School age.

Did you have prior retail experience? Kelley owned a store in the early 90’s called Curio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She then started her own bath, body and fragrance company called K. Hall Designs with her husband John Barr. They moved the business to Saint Louis in 2003.

Your favorite thing about owning an independent shop? When a customer comes up to you and tells you that they are proud to have a business like yours in their neighborhood. It melts my heart and is sometimes all I need to keep going. when everything seems to be broken.

Your advice for anyone wanting to open a shop? Make your store and brand curation feel intimate, but find ways to build a wide, diverse customer base that has their own reason for supporting your shop. Trust your gut on what the store should feel like. Yes, sometimes you make decisions based on what you think customers want, but part of the magic of a Store is that as a customer you get to see inside of a creative person’s soul in terms of what inspires them. That honesty is the most important thing that has to be there for any Business.

If you weren’t a shopkeeper you would be..? An Explorer

What are your favorite local independent businesses? Union Studio, T. Hargrove Fly Fishing Shop, Field Theory, Honeycomb and Flowers and Weeds.

What are your favorite shops? 

Hillfolk, Bentonville, AR; Des Moines Mercantile, Des Moines, IA; Monroe Home & Style, Charlestown, MA; Salt House Mercantile, Bainbridge Island, WA; Sault  Boston, Boston, MA & Portsmouth, NH; Windy Peak, Livingston, MT; Asher + Rye , Savannah, GA and The Customs House.

I wish I could… Fly fish, forage/hike and work in my garden every single day. Not enough hours in a day!

ON THE FUTURE OF RETAIL

“The future of retail is harder than it used to be, it will be incredibly hard on those retailers who cannot cultivate a loyal customer base who is willing to come into their store and buy into what has been assembled. There are just too many places to buy things online conveniently. The Pandemic proved that humans will still shop in person. People need to feel compelled to return time and time again to see what is new. The future of retail is sink or swim.”

CIVIL ALCHEMY

8154 Big Bend Blvd, Saint Louis, MO

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