Answering Serenity's Call

Chic meets metaphysical in a new upscale store on the California coast.
by : 

Molly Trimble

December 1, 2013
Answering Serenity's Call

The path to opening an independent shop is often a winding one, with many adventures along the way. Like Dorothy on the yellow-brick road, the way is peppered with frightful moments, unforeseen challenges, inspiring developments, a host of helpers, and finally, a true sense of accomplishment.

Just seven months old, Serenity Calling is a beautiful store in both appearance and intention, and the manifestation of a dream owner Gillian Caine nurtured for years.

Molly Trimble: Let’s start by orienting the reader, Gillian. You opened your store just this year, on May 30, in the small, affluent town of Agoura Hills on Highway 101 in Los Angeles County. How is your store doing?

Gillian Caine: Business is picking up. I think we’re doing better than most general retailers at this stage of the game. People love the store, so I’m optimistic.

Trimble: You’re located in an iconic Agoura Hills shopping center that’s in the process of being renovated. When you were shopping for a location, what drew you to this one?

Caine: The individual ownership was one thing that drew me, as opposed to a big corporate conglomerate. When I first saw the Whizin’s Center, I thought, “No, this isn’t high-end enough,” because I already had some high-end pieces and was looking for a certain aesthetic. Then I saw the part of the Center that was renovated, and it was perfect—very Zen-modern and beautiful, with fountains and water features and plants. When I started talking to the owners a year ago, they were ready to move forward with the rest of the renovations.

If they implement what they said they were going to, then it will be great, but if you came to the Center today, you would say, “Oh my gosh, this is not such a nice place.” We’re going around and around right now because I chose this location based on the improvements the owners promised.

Trimble: Are you making headway with them?

Caine: Fortunately, I know they want me to stay. They still have quite a few vacancies, and they really love my store. I think this level of retail is what they’re shooting for. They don’t want me to leave, that’s for sure, so we’re going to work it out.

Trimble: Before opening Serenity Calling, you had no specific retail experience, and yet, starting with a bare floor and bare walls, you completely readied your store’s interior in two months. Did you spend a long time planning what the store would look like?

Caine: I drew it out on paper, and I have an eye and a visual sensibility, and I knew where I wanted to see things. I got inspiration from the Papyrus stores—I really think they’re merchandised well, and I like their sleek design sense. Things evolved along the way, and I made some design choices, like shelves that are white on the inside, black on the outside, so it’s very striking.

Trimble: What does Serenity Calling specialize in?

Caine: Our tagline is “A Gallery for Enlightened Living.” We specialize in metaphysical products and some general cross-over lines that inspire, lift us up, and bring hope and optimism. All our products fall into that category.

We have lots of artisan-produced, one-of-a-kind items. I really prefer special attention to an article or product, as opposed to mass produced. The artists I buy from are putting their own individualized, focused attention on making these things, and that translates into how people feel when they pick them up. They have a whole different vibe.

Trimble: Do you buy direct from the artists or take the items in on consignment?

Caine: Ninety-five percent of the products I buy outright. I’ve started to consign a little bit more, but it’s kind of a bookkeeping hassle. It’s beneficial in other ways, though.

Trimble: Do you negotiate the terms of each consignment on its own with the artist?

Caine: Yes, and it depends on how badly I want to carry the product, whether it’s really going to enhance the whole store, and how the individual deals with me. I like peaceful, win-win situations.

I’m really into collaborating with my artists. If I happen to have a pile of stones that could be incorporated into a jewelry design, that can be a collaboration rather than a straight consignment or direct buy. It works really well and is fun for everyone.

Trimble: Tell readers a little more about the specific products you carry.

Caine: We have a line of Amazon rainforest hardwood that is certified by the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency. They make these unbelievably amazing home goods, from fruit bowls to tiny items like incense holders and key chains to big, humongous tables. I’m lucky enough to have an exclusive on that line. No one else in the country has it. The hardwood is just absolutely marvelous. When you touch it, it’s like touching Mother Earth herself.

We also carry a line of Murano hand-blown glass vases and bowls. These pieces evoke such emotion—they’re really magnificent, one of a kind. Everyone loves them. And we have crystals, of course, lots of crystals, from the little pocket, tumbled stones all the way up to five-foot-tall cathedral crystals.

We also carry a library of antique spiritual books from the 1850s to 1900s, and they do really well.

Trimble: That’s interesting. Why antique books?

Caine: My store is 1,000 square feet, so space is at a premium and new books have a very small margin for profit, so I decided just to do an antique book collection. I’ve collected them personally for years, and I thought, well, a certain clientele will like these like I do. I also thought I could offer something rare, and I could charge a premium because I would have to find them in the world.

I do the same with the antique tarot decks we carry, which some people just go crazy for because they’re so hard to find.

Trimble: What else do you carry that are dependable sellers?

Caine: I do well with niche sort of things. We have our own candle line and our own incense line and our own soap line that I get from local artisans—they’re handmade and organic.

Trimble: You have some beautiful jewelry, too.

Caine: Yes, thank you. I came from the gem business, and I’ve always been a fan of gems and nicer pieces of jewelry with higher quality stones. I have this theory that energy works better with better quality stones.

Carrying jewelry in the store was a lesson to learn. Early on, I invested in a line that is handmade and just really divine. But, I’ve found people don’t come into my store specifically to buy jewelry, so it’s harder for them to rationalize buying a really nice piece from a store like ours. So, we haven’t done as well with that line as I would have liked, even though the pieces are truly stunning.

I’m still going to carry jewelry, but it will be less high-end. It will be silver and the stones will be lesser gem quality—still great stuff, but the price point will be lower.

Trimble: So the gem business was your career before opening your store?

Caine: For a big part of my career I was a producer, in television mainly, and my ex-husband was my business partner. When we split up and the economy went south, I got a job in the gem business, which was my passion. I love crystals and gems, and I got to be privy to that world.

I went around the world with my boss, and we had clients that were Asian, Chinese mostly, and they wanted really significant stones—anything over 50 carat in d-flawless, which means perfectly white, flawless stones. So I got to hold in my hands amazing stones, 100-carat, d-flawless diamonds. Energetically, they are amazing.

Trimble: That must have been really fun.

Caine: It was. That was probably my dream job, other than my store, but unfortunately, my boss and I didn’t see eye to eye, and I needed to leave. I was very disappointed.

Trimble: Did that experience with those amazing gems bridge the way to opening your store?

Caine: Yes, it did. I was struggling with having to start over again, and my boyfriend—it was a new relationship at the time—asked me, “What do you really want to do?” And I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to have a metaphysical store.” He encouraged me to think about that.

I did a lot of soul searching that night. I always have a lot of ideas, but I had to decide where I was going to focus my energies. I spent the whole night awake, literally awake, and I thought, “What really makes me happy?” The answer was my crystals and my treasures, my practice, my meditation, and my spiritual life, so I decided to manifest all that into a store.

Trimble: Why specifically a store?

Caine: The impulse for a store started when I lived in Sarasota, Fla., 20 years ago. I would go into Kim Perkins’ store, Elysian Fields, nearly every day and just hang out in there and be happy. I even had a reading from Kim, and I told her, “I want a store like this. Can that ever happen?” And she said, “Eventually it will, but it will be a long time.” [Editor’s Note: Kim Perkins writes “Shop Talk,” our business advice column.]

The vibe at Elysian Fields was what I wanted. When I was opening my store, I went to all the metaphysical stores within a 100-mile radius, and I would feel anxiety in a lot of them. There was too much junk all piled in, in the name of metaphysics or spirituality—just China crap, really. I know the mind can overcome a lot of that, but I wanted my store to make you feel really good when you walked in. And that’s what I think I’ve achieved. Mine is a high-end metaphysical store, and I don’t think there are very many others like mine.

Trimble: Has it been difficult to mix the metaphysical with mainstream? Has anyone been confused when they come in?

Caine: It’s so interesting, because I can really feel people’s energy and what they’re processing when they come in. We have a lot of crystals in our window, so you get the gist of the store from the outside. In general, most of the people who come in are curious.

The people who have leanings toward anything metaphysical, even a little bit, are very excited and intrigued, and they just love the store. Some people are fearful of anything outside of very traditional belief systems, so they don’t stay long in the store, even with our cross-over products—they’re too afraid.

The people who are not fear-based but not necessarily into metaphysics are very attracted to some of our products, the Murano vases particularly. I do really well with those for mainstream people. They like the Amazon rainforest products, too. Those two main lines anybody can appreciate, whether they’re into metaphysics or not.

Trimble: What about events? Do you have room for events in your store?

Caine: There’s a vacant space next to me, and I’m able to use that for now. Eventually I intend to take over that space. I have it on “energetic lock.” We already need more room, and I’m asking for first right of refusal.

Trimble: How many more square feet will that give you?

Caine: About 500. I have 1,000 square feet now. I could use 2,500, but I can’t afford that yet. I really want to lock in that space, because we’re doing so many events and readings.

Trimble: What kind of readings do you offer?

Caine: We have all types, really: clairvoyant, ThetaHealing, tarot, astrology. We have one reader a day in the store now—I’d like to have two. With the space next door, I could have three.

Trimble: What kind of events do you have?

Caine: New moon and full moon events, ThetaHealing circles, tarot classes, psychic intuition classes, manifestation events, and free group meditation two Wednesdays a month.

I’m having an event in the fall just for interior designers for my line of Amazon hardwood which, well, words cannot describe. It helps sustain the rainforest, which is just wonderful, and it educates and helps people understand how amazing and worthy of saving the rainforest is. It needs to be offered to the designer community in Los Angeles and probably New York, but that will be the next step.

I also have the line of Murano vases for designers, which I’m also fortunate enough to have an exclusive on. Customers buy them all day long, so I have a great thing there. I want to have this event so designers can see them.

And then I have the crystals. I go to the birthplace of amethysts to get the crystals. Because I am able to import these lines direct, including the crystals, I want to offer them to the designer community here. The designers will be able to buy direct from me, and I can give them a discount. That’s an additional income stream I want to focus on.

Trimble: Importing can be tricky. Did you have to learn how to import?

Caine: Yes, very tricky. I did have to learn, and I still feel I don’t know much about it. I do know you have to make it worth your while. You need to have a lot of cash money to buy big amounts—that’s how you get the real deals. And, you also have to consider what it takes for you to get the stuff. I go to Brazil and handpick my crystals, so that’s a lot of time and energy and travel costs. I think I get better products by doing that, but I do have to have the money to order in bulk.

Trimble: How have you been advertising your store?

Caine: When we opened, we were able to do some print advertising where it came off as editorial—I really like that kind of advertising. This is an area with high-quality local magazines, and we were able to get a full-page article about the store and a cover tag.

We do about $750 a month in online advertising, but targeted locally, locally meaning the five or six little cities surrounding us, which is how L.A. is—a lot of little mini-towns within a large city. We also do Facebook and Google and Yelp.

Trimble: As you look at this whole journey creating your store, is there anything you would have done differently?

Caine: I’m not sure I could have spent less than I did, but I probably wouldn’t have invested so much in certain things, now that I know how things are selling, like the high-end jewelry, because that was a big chunk of money.

Trimble: What’s been most surprising on this journey? I’m guessing some things didn’t turn out the way you expected, considering you were new to retail.

Caine: I’m surprised the books do so well. I thought they would be one of the more obscure things, and actually they took a little bit of time to catch on, but now people come here looking for these crazy books, like a 1914 spell book or an 1850s history of magic—things like that. People go wild for them. They buy a pile at a time.

Trimble: You mentioned what is trending well in your store, which are the antique books and Murano glass and rainforest hardwood products. Anything else?

Caine: The crystals do well. And something I learned: It took me about a month to fill up the store with impulse buys or little renewable products, like oils and incense and sage—things people have to come back for. Everybody who comes into the store now takes some little thing with them, whereas before we had all the little products, people couldn’t always justify a $300 bowl, whether it is rainforest wood or not. People wanted to leave the store with something, and they’re perfectly happy to leave with a five-pack of incense for three bucks or some oils that are easy purchases.

Trimble: What advice do you have for others who want to open an independent store?

Caine: Well, this is probably going to be disappointing for some, but you need a lot of money. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I am blessed enough to have a financial backer who has really been supportive, but even with that, it has been somewhat of a struggle.

I’m always the optimist, and I think, “Oh well, of course this is going to be great, because I’ll love it!” You don’t foresee the problems, like there’s no signage and no one can find you or whatever it is that happens, so having resources is very important.

I just would tell people to know they’ll need a lot of money before they begin.

Trimble: Do you have other advice for newbies or those looking to revamp their stores?

Caine: Hire the right people. We have cross-over products, but we do really have core metaphysical products here, so we’re doing tarot readings and I’m always flinging a wand around and it’s like a bunch of witches in here (laughs). I’m 100-percent sure we scared away a couple of employees. It’s tricky to find those people in this specific niche, but finding someone who’s open is important. Really, if you’re trying to sell something and you’re not open to it, you’re never going to do it, because people feel that.

Trimble: How many people did you hire when you started?

Caine: I hired a manager first, and she’s been great. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the store sometimes, I travel a lot on buying trips, and you can’t just go for the weekend, sometimes they’re 10-day trips. I couldn’t hire someone for just the times I’m gone, that wouldn’t work, so I had to hire people as though I would never be here.

I have two other salesgirls, part-time. We also have readers who aren’t salespeople. With my schedule, I’m the “bonus.”

Another piece of advice: If you can find people who are willing, have your salespeople double as readers. My manager is a clairvoyant, so she can do readings, and so does my lead salesgirl. When a walk-in wants a reading, I take the employee off the floor, and I don’t pay them their hourly rate. That changes things from money going out to money coming in. It works really well.

Trimble: How do you train your staff? What do you emphasize with them?

Caine: If they don’t already understand the metaphysical products, they have to learn and understand them. Every product in the store has a story, so I try to make sure they get that story. Like the Amazon rainforest products, what’s that story? Everyone here needs to know, because some customers are very worried about the wood, as they should be. Is it actually certified? Is it actually environmentally protected? And so on. My employees need to know these stories.

Trimble: What point-of-sale system did you choose?

Caine: My POS software is Lightspeed. It’s Mac-based and it’s brilliant in so many ways and limiting in some ways, too. It’s very intuitive and really easy—anyone can deal with it as a salesperson—but Lightspeed recommends QuickBooks on the PC for your accounting package. That means you have to export your sales and information from your Mac POS and import it into QuickBooks on the PC, which could be much more streamlined.

Getting everything into the accounting package has been drudgery and a real problem for me, honestly. I love to have my books organized to the penny, and I don’t. I’m never completely in the dark, though, because with Lightspeed you can look at your sales and do all kinds of sales reports to know how you’re doing.

Trimble: At this point in your new venture, what’s bringing you the most satisfaction, Gillian? What are you really enjoying?

Caine: What has really warmed my heart is that so many people come in who you can tell are suffering in some way and say, “This store makes me feel so good, I just want to stay.” Even though it was my intention in the beginning, I didn’t realize how happy it would make me to know my store helps them in that way.

One woman was a recent cancer survivor, still wearing a wig and everything, and almost crying, she said that coming into my store she felt like a huge burden was lifted from her. That’s happened many times with different people.

Trimble: It’s really interesting, because you’ve talked a lot about “energy” in our interview, that you can and do feel it often coming from your products and books and from people, and here you’ve created this beautiful store to help others feel good. It seems this whole venture is a testament to the right use of energy, being aware of it and spreading healing vibes out to the world.

Caine: I’m very blessed. This was a labor of love, for sure, and I think people feel that. I look over in the store and I’ll see someone with their head stuck up in this big amethyst cathedral, literally up to their shoulders (laughs). I always feel like, “Yea!”

Trimble: Just what you were hoping for! Thank you for talking with me, Gillian. I definitely think you’ve redefined the stereotype of the metaphysical store. I hope all goes wonderfully well for you and Serenity Calling.

Store Profile

Serenity Calling: A Gallery for Enlightened Living
Gillian Caine, owner
Opened May 30, 2013
1,000 sq. ft. + 500 sq. ft. available for events
1 full-time manager, 2 half-time employees, various readers.
POS software: LightSpeed (Mac-based)
Open T-Th 11-8; F-S 11-9, Sun. 12-6, closed Monday

Molly Trimble is the Publisher of Retailing Insight.