The impact a small business can have on a community can be profound—from bringing people together through community events to creating a positive, accepting environment where everyone feels welcome.
Compendium has the honor of working with many of these businesses and the dedicated, hardworking individuals behind them. Leading up to Small Business Saturday, we want to highlight and celebrate a few of these amazing local retailers.
Today’s retailer is Blue Skies, a whimsical, delightful gift shop located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that has been open for 23 years! We had the opportunity to chat with Tina Bowyer Harrison, owner of Blue Skies, about the store’s background, the welcoming and inclusive environment she’s created, and what makes her store unique.
Tell us a bit about Blue Skies. What types of products does your store focus on?
At Blue Skies we offer a pretty eclectic mix of goods so there’s not really a focus, which is kind of what’s cool about us. You’ll find thousands of items from fun and whimsical to beautiful and practical: artisan jewelry, pretty home wares, baby and kid gifts, and a wide selection of cards. Hardly a day passes when we don’t have a customer say, “You have the best selection of cards.” We do aim to keep hearing that, so cards are a focus—and our deep, diverse selection makes us proud.
What do you hope people will experience as they browse your store?
We want people to feel as though they’re in a one-of-a-kind place—like being in a museum but the collection is for sale and it’s okay to touch. We hope they’ll be delighted by the visual experience and entertained by the selection of merchandise. If they’re looking for the perfect gift, we hope they’ll find it. We’re here to help with that and we’ll also wrap it up beautifully in our signature gift wrap!
What makes your store unique?
Two things, I think, and I’ve already alluded to the first, which is our curated collection of merchandise. Even though we are small and independent, our offerings are deep and varied. Secondly, our staff—our blue crew. Our staff changes from time to time, but the quality of our people stands out. I am grateful to employ warm, friendly, bright, caring individuals who make a great team. They genuinely love the products we sell and helping customers find the perfect gift.
Is your store involved with any community organizations or events?
Blue Skies is a founding member of the NorthShore Merchants Collective (NSMC), a voluntary organization of local businesses that organized in 2006 in order to create a unified voice for our neighborhood. It’s been great to get to know my fellow business owners, share ideas, and problem solve together. One of our annual events is a Holiday Window Treasure Hunt that raises money for a neighborhood nonprofit, Northside Neighborhood House, whose mission is to provide clients with a hand up through education and assistance. During the months of November and December, our NSMC member businesses “hide” an iconic item from another business in their holiday window. We print game cards so that families and children can search the windows for the hidden items and then submit their cards—with a small cash donation—for a chance to win a gift basket of fun from our member businesses. People look forward to this event, which is in its tenth year. We got the inspiration from one of our members who told us of a similar event in the small English town where he grew up.
As you think of the magic of the holidays, what do you hope your store can offer more of in the world?
I had a young person tell me recently that Blue Skies had been a special place to her when she was in high school. As an LGBTQ teen, she described Blue Skies as a “comforting haven” where she found sanctuary in her identity, both through her interactions with our staff and in our selection of merchandise. It was really gratifying for me to hear this so I hope we can continue to be that place—a store that welcomes everyone and that encourages acceptance and understanding.
What is interesting about the neighborhood where your store is located?
We are located in Chattanooga’s NorthShore, adjacent to its premier urban parks, Coolidge and Renaissance. The neighborhood is an older one and was one of the first to experience a rebirth in the 1990s. It is now home to more local shops and restaurants than any other pocket of our city—and there’s so much variety amongst us. Our immediate neighbors include a wonderful Japan-centric store, a New York–style deli, and the best local ice cream shop in town. It’s a dangerously tempting place to work!
Running a business is a significant commitment. What inspires you?
It’s hard to say this without it sounding cornball but I’m going to say our customers and my staff. My background is in museum retail and, although that was fun and interesting, I always wanted to have my own store in which buying wasn’t bound by the topic of an exhibition or a museum’s collection. I wanted to gather all the cool stuff I liked. One thing I didn’t anticipate is that all the cool stuff, for some inexplicable reason, seems to attract good people who share the same values—and that makes running this little business very fulfilling indeed.
To learn more about Blue Skies check out their website here. If you’re local to the Chattanooga area, stop in and say hi and explore this inviting store for yourself. The store is located at 30 Frazier Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37404.
Keep an eye out for more Small Business Saturday features throughout November.