BUSINESS MONDAY: The Plant Connector, a pandemic start-up success story – theberkshireedge.com

North Adams –– In a corner location at 48 Eagle Street, Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks have revitalized an entry point into downtown with a bright, lively storefront called The Plant Connector. The space is reminiscent of a greenhouse, or a tropical island, with green from floor to ceiling, fronds and leaves in all directions, and occasionally, a very happy bee buzzing around in the counter.

The two originally met while working in the finance department at Jacob’s Pillow, Yawn as office manager and Marks as the systems coordinator and bookkeeper.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Yawn had no plans to start a new business. “I had planned to take some time off work; I had a ticket to fly to Iceland for an artist residency on March 17. Three days before, I decided not to go.” Realizing how different both of their lives would be now if she had gotten on that plane, the two express their gratitude for the timing of the situation, and that no one was stuck overseas during any lockdowns.

Also due to the pandemic, Yawn was laid off from her position as office manager. “One of my biggest concerns about leaving my previous job was losing some of the strong relationships I had made, so Bonnie and I started hiking together a lot and talking about our dreams for our lives.” The two agree that the time spent planning and setting goals are the foundation of where they are today; “It’s taken a different ride than we expected, but it’s always fun to follow back on that. I do believe a lot of the things that were part of our initial ideas are going to become phase two and phase three of The Plant Connector.”

Yawn (l.) and Marks (r.) celebrate with a high five as they ring in their one-year anniversary of open doors at the shop. Photo courtesy of The Plant Connector

Marks and Yawn signed the lease in June of 2020, preparing themselves for the labor-intensive job that lay ahead in their empty space. “We came in, and in about two days we painted the whole interior. Floors, ceiling, you name it, we painted it.” Marks says. From construction to production, the Plant Connector began as a very do-it-yourself, hands-on experience, as it continues to be.

“I was so excited about it that I stopped sleeping as much,” Yawn says. “One night at about four in the morning, I swore there was someone trying to break into my house, so I called the cops.  Turns out it was just a skunk,” they laugh. “When you call the cops on a skunk, you know it’s time to slow down.”

It took three months, a grant from Assets for Artists and some personal funding to complete all the remaining interior work, as well as securing all the proper deeds and permits to officially run the business. “City hall was closed, so there were a lot of loopholes.” Yawn says, “I even had the registrar come out behind the dumpster and give me my forms. It was hard trying to navigate an already complicated system virtually—until finally, during the second week of September 2020, the doors opened to the public.

An indoor jungle at The Plant Connector in North Adams
An indoor jungle on display in the space. Photograph by Emilee Yawn.

At the beginning, Marks and Yawn had low expectations for the shop. “I thought we’d be lucky if we had even four customers a month come through the doors. I wasn’t really thinking of it as a business when we first opened; I was thinking of it more as a way to activate a space that was kind of an anchor point of the downtown area. I wasn’t thinking how do we make the most money here? It wasn’t my top priority. But that’s why Bonnie is the business manager,” Yawn says, laughing.

The two express how intense a commitment it takes to run a small business. Marks lives in Otis, Mass., so her commute to The Plant Connector averages an hour and a half each way. “I was coming up on Wednesday morning, working the shop until six, staying with Emilee overnight, then opening the store on Thursday and going home at night,” Marks recaps. But, she continues, being present in the space takes priority over the long drive. “We just felt like it was more important for us to run the store for that first while, even now. When it’s your own business, no one’s going to give it the emphasis that you do.”

The business experienced its first positive blip when the federal stimulus checks were sent out at the height of the pandemic. “I remember Emilee calling me to say, ‘We’ve actually got some money coming in! We’ve got to get our game on!’”  Marks says her role as business manager—keeping the books and managing the back end—should be a full-time job on its own, which she had to do while also working another part time gig. “There’s a lot of work that goes into keeping this place going.”

Bonnie Marks, owner, with flowers at The Plant Connector in North Adams
Shop owner Marks working hard in the shop, setting some vibrant flowers on display. Photograph by Emilee Yawn.

Currently, The Plant Connector does have two part time employees, Fallon and Olivia, who assist with classes, in-shop maintenance, and creative input. “Exhaustion is a real thing when being a business owner.” Yawn says. “I was never a business owner before. I’m bad with time management, setting boundaries and telling people no, biting off more than I can chew, extending myself beyond my capabilities. I never quite learned how to do those things — but this business is quickly teaching me how, which is important.”

When the shop first opened, it became a destination spot for locals and visitors in town. “We would see a lot of women meet up here, all dressed up,” Marks recalls. “People were coming and checking it out together, which was nice to see.”

The empty, somewhat desolate environment of Eagle Street is slowly turning a new leaf with businesses like The Plant Connector, and also the Installation Space and the Garden’s new skate shop. “One of the really cool things I’ve heard from people, who are from here, is that this is the first time they’ve ever shopped on Eagle Street. And they’re in their twenties.” Yawn says. “So even though we remember when North Adams had lots of shops downtown, there’s a whole generation that didn’t have that, and they’re starting to get that again. That’s a really beautiful thing to see.” Having lived in big cities since she was eighteen, Yawn greatly admires the community of the Berkshires. “When you’re living in a big city, you think you’re going to miss out on something if you move to a small city in a rural area. But the truth is, living here is full of so many surprises all the time, and the people are amazing. It’s a really great place. I will never go back to California or the west coast.”

The two have also found great success in local events that aim to get people downtown, in particular First Fridays in North Adams, a monthly occasion hosted by a local grassroots initiative. “First Fridays were a really big thing, especially when we first started. At the first one, we made held a terrarium-making event and produced eighty-three terrariums!” Yawn exclaims. “We were still in very heavy pandemic mode so it was joyous to make things with people again. It was cool to see what everybody would make; there are so many different types of people in this town, and to have space for everyone is most important.  We want to continue to offer that kind of activity.”

Making terrariums at The Plant Connector in North Adams
Guests participating in a terrarium-making event. Photograph by Emilee Yawn.

“There’s this idea that if your plant dies, you’re like, the worst person on the earth,” Yawn jokes about the intensity of the plant community. “I had a woman come in here earlier, claiming, ‘I can’t grow plants, I can’t grow plants!’” Marks adds. “And I said, well, that’s what we’re here for. To boost you up, and to get you to a place where you feel confident. We try hard to be a place that’s accepting and nonjudgmental. Plants teach us to slow down a little bit; we have to listen to something that’s not human, and that can be hard. During COVID, and even post-pandemic, a lot of people got a real appreciation for plants and how they helped fill a void in their space. And we were able to help provide that, which is special.”

Accessibility and inclusivity are a major focus of The Plant Connector’s overall initiative. At the space, they offer a lending library currently equipped with twenty-five items, including books, tools, bug zappers, grow lights and more, that can be checked out and picked up at the store. One of the shop walls features a “propagation station,” a designated area for cuttings and trimmings that can be taken for free. They are also building a database resource that includes information on all their plants. Recently, on the one year anniversary of their opening, The Plant Connector website went live, making most of these resources accessible remotely, along with an online shop that features a variety of in house vendors, sustainable goods, plants, and more.

The community plant exchange at The Plant Connector in North Adams, Mass.
The community plant exchange, otherwise known as the Propagation Station, is available for anyone to take or leave plants as needed. Photograph by Sarah DeFusco.

“We have about twenty-eight vendors right now, which can be challenging, especially when it comes to managing inventory,” Marks says. She also explains how it’s been difficult to find the right vendors. “They don’t necessarily come to you; you’ve got to get out there and find them.” The search for a plant wholesaler was tough, until a connection one day changed their lives instantly. “This wholesaler takes a lot of pride in their plants, and that allows us to have beautiful plants as well.” The wholesaler stopped accepting new clients almost immediately after The Plant Connector signed on. Sometimes in business, “timing was everything,” agree Marks and Yawn.

Finding a source for plants wasn’t the only challenge in this pursuit. Their location so far out in Berkshire county, forces the two to travel a lot to access many of the resources readily available in larger cities. “I’m putting in a lot of miles every week, just driving to get plants.” Yawn says. “One morning I drove over the mountain and it looked like it was going to snow. I’m on my way back, my little Honda HRV packed with all these big plants, and it was a complete whiteout.  There I was,  sitting in my own little tropical biosphere, driving through a blizzard on my way to work.” Not only does the weather make traveling difficult but it can be harsh on the plants themselves. “The weather is hard. A lot of our plants are tropical, and the heat inside can dry them out. There are light factors, too, because they are used to being on the equator. And we have to shift the plants around and pull them away from the windows because the draft can affect them as well.”

The vision for the shop originally included allocating space as a gallery display for local artists. This is turning out to be a problem. “Bonnie and I are really cramped in here. We don’t have enough storage space, and our cars end up functioning as rolling storage units.” Moving forward, it could be better to use their space differently, and find a better gallery space where local artists can display their work. “I really do believe there needs to be a gallery in this town that is focused on local artists, where the artists can be nurtured and supported. But our real vision for this space is about the love of plants.” To achieve this vision, they need more space for people to hang out, talk about and re-pot plants, and interact with the space. They are also considering operating with fewer full-time vendors, but offering instead opportunities to showcase individual artists, like a pop-up shop. Regardless of what the future holds for the gallery, it has been successful so far. We’ve been able to host twelve artists,” Marks says, proudly. “We’ve been able to provide them with a nice stipend, supported them one hundred percent in the sales, and I think that is a huge accomplishment in any community.”

The Plant Connector aims to inspire and provide support for the people who support them. “We want to be able to encourage other creatives to come in and work with plants too, and to learn how to develop sustainable businesses. There’s such a synergy between makers and art,” Yawn says. “I think what I really want from this place is to encourage everyone else to open their own business. It could be a little incubator for the next generation of small businesses. There’s so much talent in this community, and there’s not enough platform for it.”

The Plant Connector is already achieving this goal, inspiring folks all around town to create their own spaces and set intentions for themselves. Local shop owner Samantha White, mother of Terra, a store specializing in secondhand and vintage goods, became inspired to start her business after working with Marks and Yawn at The Plant Connector. “They truly valued my time, ideas, input and creativity, which is rare in a workplace environment,” White says about the two. “That alone is enough to make someone believe they can conquer whatever they hope to.”

Pumbpkins and flowers from local farms near North Adams, Mass.
Pumpkins and flowers from local 328 North Farm and Full Well Farm, featured at The Plant Connector during the Fall Foliage Parade. Photograph by Emilee Yawn.

A year under their belts has given Marks and Yawn an idea of what it’s like not only to co-own a business in the Berkshires, but how to gauge the future success of their operation. “We’ve got a year behind us, that was the big thing. That’s a measuring stick for everything else,” Marks says. “We know the summers are slower, and that’s something we wouldn’t have thought. But it can all change! You never know. You just have to plan ahead, figure it out, and change it up. I’ve said from the start it would take us a good two or three years to solidly build the business. I think that at three, we’ll see it become sustainable for everybody, and it’ll grow.”

The Plant Connector will be collaborating soon with local business Berkshire Cider for a Spooky Terrarium-making event hosted at the cidery. They will also be offering more classes during the holidays, including an ornament-making night. “I’m proud of us for what we’ve made. I really believe we’re trying to push something different than just a shop, and we want it to be a place that brings joy. Having experiences with people — and with their homes, even though we never see them — I feel really proud of us for that.”

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