Where Nature Meets Nurture

A green-gifts store takes root in Berkeley
by : 

Maggie Feeney

August 15, 2013
Where Nature Meets Nurture

Like the city it calls home, The Treehouse Green Gifts in Berkeley, Calif., may be small, but it has a big reputation. Nestled between a low-key coffee shop and an upscale clothing boutique, The Treehouse has made a name for itself as one of the Bay Area’s top shops for organic, handmade, recycled, and eco-friendly gifts for all ages—no small feat in a city where green is, and always will be, “in.” This is the kind of gift store one could shop in every day and still discover something new and unique! And, after spending a recent sunny afternoon with store owner Maureen O’Neil Garcia, we noticed there’s something more to her success than selling green goods alone: Garcia’s sincere dedication to her customers, her community, and her staff.

Maggie Feeney: Your store has been described as “The place to go in Berkeley for eco-friendly stuff for your home and gifts,” “Open and inviting,” “A one-stop shop” …

Maureen O'Neil Garcia: My goodness!

Feeney: … and my personal favorite, “This store is like an Etsy outpost.”

Garcia: (laughs) We get that sometimes.

Feeney: How would you describe your store.

Garcia: Well, my goal was to have something for everyone, a little bit of everything to make it fun, and to have products and unique things that don’t make you feel like you’re compromising on design or quality. We try to find a unique selection of gifts that appeal to a wide variety of customers and are also price sensitive and support not just environmentally friendly businesses but also handmade artists.

Feeney: What year did you open?

Garcia: 2007. I’d been looking for a while, but the timing and the location worked out. We opened in September, so we had that first holiday season, which was really important. And honestly, I don’t know if it’s the Bay Area that’s kind of a bubble, but I can’t complain about our sales. Each year has been better.

Feeney: What motivated you to open your store?

Garcia: I decided I wanted to have my own business some time ago when I was teaching English in Spain, trying to decide what I wanted to do with myself. At first I thought it might be a music space, but then I reconsidered and started working at and eventually managing an American craft gallery in Burlingame called Pot-Pourri. At the same time I started going to San Francisco State University. Their graduate business program had just started a sustainable business emphasis, so I ended up being in the first graduating class. And it just kind of worked out that I combined the handmade, American-craft aspects of the gallery with a sustainable focus. I was able to write my business plan as my final project for the program, so it just kind of gelled, I guess.

Feeney: What made you choose this location?

Garcia: I went to Cal as an undergrad, and I’ve lived back and forth in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. This neighborhood is a historic district, and it’s just got a really nice feel to it. There’s not really any place like it I can think of. A lot of the businesses have been here for over 30 years, and we’ve got the historic Elmwood Theater, so I was just lucky, I guess. I did look for a long time.

Feeney: Tell me about the name of your store.

Garcia: Initially, I actually wanted to build a tree house in there for kids to play on, but the liability wouldn’t have been feasible. So just the idea of a tree house is fun, and then “Green Gifts” tells people what we sell. And also “Treehouse” evokes home stuff, so fun and home and gifts.

Feeney: It works! And I like how the trees you painted on the walls reflect the name.

Garcia: That was really fun. The artist Kate Durkin painted those for me. If I couldn’t build a tree house, I wanted to have something that made you feel like you were in one.

Feeney: On your website you say you’ve intentionally created a place for kids to be welcome. Was there a particular reason why you wanted to emphasize kids’ gifts?

Garcia: Honestly, kids’ products are probably our bestsellers. I love buying the kids’ toys and clothing. There’s just so much out there that is fun and well-made, but also I think it just fits really well with the demographic of the neighborhood. There are a ton of young families here, so it’s practical as well as fun for me. Some days we might not sell much of anything, but someone’s got a baby shower to go to or a kid’s birthday party. It’s one of our mainstays.

Feeney: What’s your square footage?

Garcia: Just about a thousand, if that.

Feeney: You make great use of your vertical space, though.

Garcia: That’s just been in recent years. We didn’t always have the pedestals on the tables. It was just a matter of running out of room, so we had to go vertical.

Feeney: Where do you get your ideas for building up?

Garcia: You get catalogs, and at my old job, my boss was a master of the display. He would do really amazing things with glass blocks, tiering them up. It’s kind of making do with what you have.

Feeney: I already knew the Bay Area was eco-conscious, but I did a little research and a recent rating of the top 10 eco-conscious cities in the country included San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. That tells me there must be a lot of competition for stores carrying green goods in your area. How do you distinguish your store from other stores that carry green goods?

Garcia: That’s funny. A store just opened across the street fairly recently called Green and Gorgeous, and luckily they mainly carry live plants and stuff. I won’t lie: Zoning is a problem sometimes. The city is in the process of eliminating all types of retail quotas because there are vacancies, not really here but in other parts of Berkeley. So that leaves it up to the retailer to try to differentiate. We hope people will come for the unique variety, for the free gift wrap—we do a lot of gift-wrapping—and the customer service. My staff is amazing. I’ve not had much turnover, so I’m really lucky. And my mom volunteers. She’s retired, so she volunteers full-time! Location is so important in retail, and I think that’s a big thing for us, too. We get to know our customers, and it’s a very tight-knit community in this immediate area, the Claremont/Elmwood neighborhood. But in lieu of another location, we have the web store now—that’s our attempt to reach a broader audience.

Feeney: Your store seems to be known for exceptional customer service. Online reviews say things like, “The employees are always friendly and helpful,” “The staff seemed really friendly and open to answering questions,” and “The service is phenomenal!” What’s your secret to developing those skills in your staff?

Garcia: Choosing good people, for one. I’ve only had three employees in the six years we’ve been here. People have just stayed, and they learn the products. It’s so important that the staff be able to explain where this artist is from or how this is done or what’s eco-friendly about this or that. So just finding good people is the important part, people who like being around people, people who are friendly. You can’t really train someone if they just don’t like doing customer service.

Feeney: So was that a quality you looked for during the interview process?

Garcia: Yeah, definitely, and I checked references and gave scenarios. That seems to help because a lot of interview questions can be pretty vague. I attract—I think, I hope—people that want to stay by offering healthcare and profit sharing.

Feeney: Can you tell me more about your profit-sharing benefit?

Garcia: Once a year, if we make our goals for the year and make a certain amount of profit, then I distribute a percentage of that among the staff based on hours worked. You have to be full time, but everyone’s full time.

Feeney: That’s great! And you provide health insurance, too?

Garcia: Yes. I hear of small business owners who can’t figure out why they have turnover and it’s like, “Well, do you have them work full time?” and they say, “No, no. We only have six-hour shifts.” So then people need to work somewhere else to make a living. I mean, it’s an investment—it’s not cheap for sure—but I think it’s worth it. I can feel comfortable leaving because I know everything will be taken care of.

Feeney: That must be a good feeling.

Garcia: Yes. security, peace of mind, is worth a lot of money!

Feeney: What are the particular challenges and rewards of operating your store?

Garcia: The biggest reward is feeling good about what you do every day. Each day is different, and we just have such great customers, and we feel proud of what we’re doing. Challenges? Well, you know in a business life cycle you have the growth phase and then you kind of start to stabilize or plateau, and I think we’re reaching our plateau right now. So, the main challenge is extending our reach in terms of the web store and continuing to increase sales in the face of increasing healthcare costs and insurance. All those things definitely increase your overhead. Juggling personal with the business is a challenge, too, knowing you’re ultimately in charge of making sure the store is open every day.

Feeney: Do you have a best-selling item in your store or a category of items that sell well?

Garcia: I think gifts for babies and kids, in terms of sales revenue. Recently our most popular item—this changes, but most recently—is a California map flour-sack dish towel. For whatever reason, it’s a good gift for people visiting. Certain lines of kids’ products, like Kate Quinn Organics, who is in Washington, I believe. Green Toys, which are still made in California. It’s probably the only line of kids’ stuff still made in the Bay Area or even in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, the other companies all pay a lot to make sure things are done well and safely and ethically, but it’s tough to still find things made here. Jewelry continues to be a really good, strong seller as well.

Feeney: Do you have a favorite item in your store right now?

Garcia: I would love to take home all our lamps! This company Stray Dog Designs, they do papier mâché lamps with different fun flowers and tree shapes. They’re just really cheerful and they make me happy. They’re expensive, so we’ll probably keep them around for a while. And we have a local Oakland artist, Margaret Dorfman. She has a line called Turning Leaf. She makes bowls—and now jewelry—out of vegetable and fruit parchment. She’s wonderful. She slices, dries, and makes parchment out of fruits and vegetables. It’s all based on what’s in season, so it changes. People really love her stuff, and I love it, too.

Feeney: Is there a product that didn’t live up to the hype or didn’t live up to your expectations?

Garcia: Well, in general when I opened I probably had items with higher price points, and maybe it was the economy going south, but they didn’t sell well. And maybe I was trying to be too much like the American craft gallery, but I had hand-turned wooden bowls that were over a hundred dollars that people just didn’t want to spend the money on—beautiful, but maybe in this economy people just don’t want to spend more than $40. So I think we began to focus more on kids because we saw how many kids were in the area and that became a bigger segment. Originally we had more home stuff, but it didn’t sell as much, so we had to rethink and change.

Feeney: It seems you source a lot of Bay Area artisans. How do you find them?

Garcia: Well, initially I approached most of them. We get a lot of requests—it’s amazing how many requests sometimes. It’s a combination of going to shows and the research I did before we opened, and people come to us.

Feeney: What is your favorite show to go to?

Garcia: I definitely would say the New York Gift Show. They have a pretty big green category, and their handmade section is nice. I see a lot of the same jewelry artists, especially in the handmade section there. It’s fun. It takes about six days to get through if you walk the whole show.

Feeney: Do you go with a plan?

Garcia: No, I just walk the whole show. I figure I only go once a year so I might as well take it all in.

Feeney: You have so many handmade and eco-conscious products. How do you tell the story of all these products? Do you get information from the vendors or do you research it yourself?

Garcia: In the age of the Internet, it’s easy to find information on the vendors’ web pages if they don’t include certain info with the products, but usually by the time we’re ordering, we know what’s good about a product. And a lot of artists, too, include cards to pass on to customers. One of my employees, she’s very motivated. She made her own little booklet of all the cards the artists have given us so she can study it.

Feeney: That is dedication!

Garcia: Yeah, she’s awesome. So, I don’t know, it just kind of sinks in. We hear each other saying it over and over, so we all learn.

Feeney: If there’s one thing you could eliminate from your work schedule, what would it be?

Garcia: Maybe I’m just not of the era, but I’m not really keen on doing all the social marketing. You know, we post new products on Facebook and announce our sales, and we do some specials via Facebook. And every month I do an email to our mailing list with new products and if we’re having a sale. I don’t mind the emails so much, but I just learned that Google algorithms are changing for search engine optimization and it’s going to be fresh content that’s the most important thing. It’s just one more thing you’ve got to fit into your day, so that’s probably my least favorite. But there’s not much I dislike about my day.

Feeney: How do you allocate your advertising dollars? Do you do print or radio advertising?

Garcia: No more print. No radio. I could never afford radio. But we have a coupon in a local coupon book called the Chinook Book that offers discounts. Mainly, they’re all eco-friendly places in the Bay Area. We get a lot of business from that. They have a mobile app for the phone now, so a lot of people do that. From day one we offered customers a form to fill out for the mailing list, and I think direct marketing is still the best and most effective advertising. At the beginning, I did do some print advertising to try to get our name out, but you’ve got to test that somehow by attaching a coupon or something like that.

Feeney: If you had to start your business over, would you would do anything differently now?

Garcia: Yeah, I would maybe choose a different point-of-sale system, one that was ready to be integrated with the online world. I think at the beginning I used the point-of-sale system my old boss used because I knew it and I didn’t want to have to learn something else right at the beginning. In retrospect, it probably would have been worth it, but I guess you never know. Technology changes so quickly. I might have looked for a bigger space, too. Sometimes I feel like we’re bursting at the seams, but I think I was nervous about really high rent initially. I’m comfortable with what we have, but our space does feel small sometimes.

Feeney: Morning person or night owl?

Garcia: Morning (laughs). I can’t function after eight o’clock. I think I get most of my work done before I come to work. It’s just, you never know. You might have a million deliveries or it could be a busy day, which is good obviously, but you can’t count on getting stuff done.

Feeney: What motto do you live by?

Garcia: Hmmm. “Do what you love, love what you do,” but also, “Doing good and doing business aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Feeney: Any last words of advice for your fellow retailers?

Garcia: Know your customer, value your employees, feel good about what you’re doing and what you’re selling, and try to have a reasonable work/life balance.

Maggie Feeney is Managing Editor of Retailing Insight.