Small Business Profile: Laura Housgard, Owner of Johan
Hi Laura! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Laura Housgard and I own Johan, a concept shop for the design-minded in Portland, Oregon.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I grew up in Portland and started working retail when I was 18. Over the years I worked at GAP, Hollister, Crate & Barrel, Sur la Table, Club Monaco, J Crew - all the terrible big box stores. But I will say, they are a great place to learn the foundations of retail! During undergrad I studied business and merchandising, and then I moved to Sweden and did a master's program in branding and marketing. After living in Sweden, I moved to New York and worked in corporate fashion for four years, mainly doing technical design.
What led you to begin Johan?
At a certain point in New York I was miserable being a cog in the corporate machine (isn't everyone??). I knew that I wasn't cut out for the 9-5 and I did some serious soul searching. I decided that based on 10+ years of retail experience, my degrees, and my skill set, I was best cut out to start a store. At the time I was still obsessed with Swedish culture, so I started a blog and the an online shop selling exclusively Swedish brands - Fjallraven, Stutterheim, etc. It was very niche! When I moved back to Portland to be closer to family, I changed direction a bit and added local designers and vintage - and opened the tiny secret shop in my apartment. The concept has now evolved to include high quality, high design brands from all over the world.
What are the origins of the store's name?
Johan is named for my great great great grandfather Johan August Magnusson. While living in Sweden I had the opportunity to see our family farmhouse that he built in 1864. It was beautiful and there are such wonderful stories about him being a resourceful business man, but also being a bit of a dreamer. I was inspired and saw a bit of myself in Johan.
When and why did you move your shop from southeast Portland to downtown? How was the process of finding a new space?
I moved the shop in the summer of 2016. The first shop was in my apartment! It was tiny and we had simply outgrown it. I debated where the new location should be, and I wasn't set on downtown by any means. When I found our current spot I was won over by the weird location and the huge windows! I wanted Johan to be convenient for locals and tourists, but also to feel like an oasis that you just happened to stumble upon in the middle of nowhere. The new spot ticked off all those boxes. Searching for a new space was incredibly fun for me - I've debated going into commercial real estate because I love it so much!
How do you source the items you have in your shop? Is there a certain criteria you look for?
We go to market in New York twice a year to find new brands, we contact brands we like on Instagram, we get emails daily from brands approaching us, and we source vintage locally. There are so many avenues now for buying - it's really crazy. I have a mental list of rules, or you could say criteria, for what I buy for the shop, but also for what I buy for myself.
Rule #1: Don't buy anything (there is so much in the world! Is this really worth it? It helps to stop and think and then try to not buy anything at all. Of course, with the shop, this can't always work!).
Rule #2: Buy vintage. It's already in circulation! It's already been produced! By buying vintage, you're not creating a demand that needs to be supplied.
Rule #3: Buy local. If it can't be used, buy it from a local designer - or at the very least, from a local shop. This keeps money circulating in your own economy, which is beneficial for everyone.
Rule #4: Buy designer. OK! OK!! I know. It's hard to follow the first three rules. That's why you can give in if you have to and buy a beautiful designer piece. Designer pieces are typically made to last though, so don't plan on splurging on Rule #4 too often.
Could you tell us more about Closed Gallery and where this idea stemmed from?
Closed Gallery is a project-based space in an old gallery in Chinatown that I am using to experiment with ideas surrounding art, design, retail, and community outside the bounds of our shop in #plainsite. The idea came to me last winter when the shop was really slow, we had a ton of snow and ice in Portland, and people wanted to hang out and be a part of a community - but no one wanted to spend money. The gallery has been a fun way to take this awesome community we already have and strengthen it.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Literally everywhere. Song lyrics, someone I walk by, the grocery store, a conversation I overhear, books, magazines, The New York Times - it can be anything, but it's rarely Instagram or Pinterest.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local?
So many reasons. To keep money circulating in your own communities, keep your carbon footprint small, support artists and designers, create jobs, contribute to the uniqueness of your city, I could go on and on. But the biggest reason is the planet. Micro-economies are going to become increasingly important.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
The people I get to interact with every day. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by talented, thoughtful people who believe in me and let me and my business be a part of their world.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with running your shop?
Running a shop is the hardest thing I've ever done. When the shop is doing well, I feel confident. When the shop is slow, I feel like a failure. The biggest challenge is not let the success of the shop dictate my self worth.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Women alone are powerful. Women together are unstoppable. What we can achieve when we work together is far greater than what we can achieve alone.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating/running your business?
Having mentors! And Instagram!
How do you manage your time?
I'm terrible at this. Next question.
How do you deal with moments of self doubt?
I remind myself that I am a human just like everyone else, and I can do anything I set my mind to. The mind is a powerful thing if trained correctly.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
Luce, Tusk, Aviv, Forest Park, Powell's Books, Monograph Bookwerks