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Change of plans led Brookland retailer to 25 years of success

(Published February 12, 2001)


Staff Writer

Bill Rollings checks the stock of art supplies at his Brookland store, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

In almost four decades, Bill Rollings has seen once-thriving local competition in the office and art supply business dwindle to a handful of retailers in an industry now dominated by big corporate chain stores.

But Rollings’ business is one of the survivors. And his original store – Abstract Inc. at 3309 12th St. NE in Brookland – is celebrating its 25th year.

"I proved that I could go into business, do business and I am still in business," Rollings said of his business success.

After working for 12 years as first a stock clerk and eventually manager of a local art supply company, Rollings became motivated to open his own business.

Initially, he said he thought about opening a clothing store but had to "change my thought pattern" because he had no experience selling clothing.

. "I looked at other things when (the answer) was right in front of me," he said of his lengthy retail experience. "I realized that I could do the same thing" – but as the owner, rather than an employee.

To become an owner, Rollings said he had to learn how to be one first. His research began while still manager for his previous employer.

"I had to realize that everything stopped at me and then make good decisions," he said. He said doing the research made him realize "I like being hands-on because there’s no one else to blame but me."

Six years after opening Abstract Inc., Rollings and his wife opened a second store called Innervision on Capitol Hill. Managed by his wife of 36 years, JoAnn Rollings, Innervision has a unique appeal of its own.

"While my husband specializes in custom framing and art supplies, here we have printing cards and stationery," she said.

She said she feels Innervision is "her store" because she has filled it with items she likes. "I have things at my store that he doesn’t have at his, like assorted stationery, journals, memo books and jurisdiction maps."

She credits her husband with teaching her that "the customer is always right," and that although they share similar duties at their respective stores, "this has been his dream and he fulfilled it."

"My husband is the key to our success," said Rollings’ wife of the prosperity they have found in their stores. As manager of Abstract Inc., Rollings handles a variety of tasks. "I don’t just go upstairs to my office and look over the day’s priorities," he said. "I also answer the phone and work downstairs with customers."

Owning a small business is no small feat by any measure. The couple said that they feel that every experience is a learning one, and that there have been no moments that they would claim as their worst.

"I will tell you the very best feeling though," said Rollings. "Paying off that Small Business Administration loan." He said the day he made the last payment felt as though "a huge weight lifted" from his shoulders.

Rollings said that the convenience of a small business is that the owner can "cater to the customer’s direct needs faster," making it a more efficient and direct approach. His wife said that the customer base at Innervision is very loyal as well, "we have customers who are in other countries like London, and there was even someone in Oklahoma who wanted us to ship them a product." The benefits also include the fact that "small companies can do a lot of things that larger companies might have to go through a lot of red tape to do," he said.

Mrs. Rollings notes "there is nothing like owning your own business. You are your own boss, but your hours are different from 9 to 5."

Three things the couple recommends for those interested in starting their own business:

(1) Find the best company that fits your interests and start at the bottom to learn the whole operation. "That way you get to see the headaches," said Rollings.

(2) Find dedicated people to hire who feel as strongly as you do about the job. Rollings spoke of the importance of reliable employees: "I feel fortunate to have a couple of good people around me."

(3) "Always pick an ideal area for your clientele biz," said Rollings’ wife of the importance of people and product placement.

While the couple agrees that they need to include more computer-based software in their stores as 2001 progresses, the similarities end there.

"I might do a mini gallery in the store," Rollings said of his recent considertations for the Brookland store. To appeal to tourists who frequently travel through her store, Mrs. Rollings said should "would like to take Innervision to another level and add on a gift shop."

Although neither sees retirement in the near future, she already has an idea for what she plans to do when that day comes: "I want to write a book about retail."

The Common Denominator is seeking D.C.’s “mainstay” businesses — those that have weathered the years and the competition and have continued to thrive. If you have a suggestion for a local business to be featured in a future issue, please call our newsroom at (202) 635-6397 (635-NEWS).

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator