Building A Legacy

Jake Steel and mother Vicki Steel . Jake plays an active role in Earth Wood & Fiber, which Vicki and husband Richard cofounded in 2013. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Jake Steel and mother Vicki Steel . Jake plays an active role in Earth Wood & Fiber, which Vicki and husband Richard cofounded in 2013. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Local customers love Newtown Square artisan store, but for owners, it’s been a test of survival.

Posted: August 12, 2014

In 2004, Richard and Vicki Steel's bodies failed them.

He quit practicing dentistry when three surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome did not relieve his suffering.

Already compromised by a serious lung disorder, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Nearly two years of surgeries and radiation treatments left her thinking that "it would be better to check out."

A decade later, the couple from Edgmont, Delaware County, face another test of survival - as small-business owners.

Their Earth Wood & Fiber, a Newtown Square shop carrying only creations by U.S. artisans, is 14 months old. It's been a year of tough lessons: unanticipated expenses; bad timing; the extraordinary demands of building and maintaining a social-media presence, and the need to attract walk-ins to an obscure location.

Although Vicki Steel, a talented seamstress and the impetus behind the venture, admits there are parts of this entrepreneurial exertion she would not repeat - including building a store - she added: "Would I do the business again? Yes. . . . The only true failure is in not starting."

There were three primary motivating factors: children Sergio, 38, Rachel, 28, and Jake, 26, each of whom has creations for sale in the store. Jake also works there full time.

"It's not for us," Vicki said last week, standing in the middle of 1,800 stunning square feet of Brazilian cherry flooring, hand-carved wooden counters, display cases - many made by Richard and Sergio - and soaring, skylight-studded cathedral ceilings. "Our legacy is our children can go forward [with it]. We've created something."

That something had been a longtime ambition of Vicki's. She worked as a buyer for ski and tennis shops, a country club's pro shop, and a racquet club in her native Maryland early in her career, never forgetting these words of advice from one boss: "You ever want to make money, you start with nothing and work for yourself."

She would go on to spend 25 years as office manager in her husband's dental practice in Newtown Square.

In 1995, they moved that practice from rental space to a property not on the commercial corridor of West Chester Pike, but on Rhoads Avenue in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It had a pool out back and plenty of ground for parking.

"Then life occurs," Vicki said of the medical crises that would intrude - and ultimately lead to Earth Wood & Fiber.

Richard, 62, and Vicki, 63, spent their recovery periods indulging their creative urges: his, woodworking; hers, sewing decorative pillows and baby blankets.

By 2012, their health stable, they turned blueprints into a store with the look and feel of a gallery. It took shape where the pool had been, costing about $450,000, the sprinkler system alone an unexpected $35,000 to $40,000, Richard said. Getting the store up and running cost another $50,000 to $100,000, he said.

"Had I known what it entailed, would I have put the shovel in the ground? My answer would have been no," Vicki said.

Regret No. 2: Debuting in summer.

"We opened up at the absolute worst time of the year," said son Jake. "In our area, everyone goes to the Shore for the summer."

But they eventually came home. And, mercifully, they read the mailer his sister, Rachel, an interior designer and painter, had created for distribution.

"When November hit, we couldn't keep up," Jake said of the crowds, which led to lessons in inventory control.

Earth Wood & Fiber now has "a decent customer base" and merchandise from 130 artists, nearly seven times the number when the store opened. The Steels can tell you about each one of their products - and will.

Andrea Agresta of Newtown Square is grateful for that. Her pet portraits are a recent addition at Earth Wood & Fiber.

"Any little bit of recognition that an artist can get in today's world is fabulous," Agresta said.

It's how so many people now know about Prospect Park woodworker Richard Sim and his beehives.

"You really have to crawl your way up in getting the attention," Sim said of an artist's life, and a small-business owner's.

In Delaware County, there are plenty of the latter. John Sammartino, chief of staff at the Chamber of Commerce, said 90 percent of the estimated 15,000 businesses have fewer than 20 employees.

"For local people who like to buy local, it's important to them they can just run down the street to Newtown Square or Media and patronize those businesses," he said. "It's more than just economy, it's a quality-of-life thing."

That's assuming they find them. Of Earth Wood & Fiber's low-profile location, Richard Steel quipped:

"It should have been called 'Hidden Treasure.' "


>Inquirer.com

Vicki Steel talks about the role her store, Earth Wood & Fiber, plays in her family and in the community. www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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