January 16, 2020 • Sarah Schwartz
Risk & Reward
A Chicago ‘presser takes the retail plunge, and discovers a bigger platform
Like many letterpressers, Shayna Norwood fell in love with the medium at a young age while earning her BFA at San Francisco Institute. But it wasn’t until she began working on her MFA at Columbia College Chicago that Steel Petal Press came into existence, initially as a side project.
“I started printing holiday cards to send to friends and family,” she recalled. “After letterpressing school projects, I’d use the school’s studios for personal work. I approached stores around Chicago to sell extra cards, and the company grew from there.”
Over the next five years, Steel Petal Press slowly evolved, expanding into wholesale and outgrowing two presses and two studios. When its third, 500-square-foot space was getting too small, an aversion to her cross-town commute would change its entire trajectory. “I was looking for a larger space closer to home, (but) everything I found was bigger than I needed and way out of my price range,” Norwood remembered. “I began brainstorming ways to alleviate the hefty price tag. Once I started thinking about a retail shop, I knew it was what I wanted. I was genuinely inspired to curate a shopping experience full of brands I loved.”
A NEIGHBORHOOD SPACE
Norwood found a space just a half mile from her Logan Square home that was three times the size of her previous studio. Norwood has lived in this area since she moved to Chicago in 2008, so she regards it as being almost interwoven into her brand. She’s witnessed its evolution from a quiet community to a bustling tourist destination, with bars, restaurants, stores and lots of new construction complemented by parks and green spaces that maintain its neighborhood vibe.
Both its location and Steel Petal Press’ very nature lend themselves to myriad promotions and collaborations. “We have participated in local events like Holidays on the Square, GIFT Chicago and Chicago Print Crawl,” she detailed. “Our biggest draw as a destination is our unique selection of cards and gifts along with our open print shop. Visitors can see the presses in action if they come on the right day — we usually print on Tuesday.”
Steel Petal Press’ rear three-quarters is dedicated to production, warehouse and shipping while the front quarter focuses on retail. Norwood has three full-timers and four part-timers, all with rather fluid job descriptions. “Everyone helps with a little of everything. Retail people will help fold and sleeve cards while production staff helps watch the front when needed. We’re a tight-knit team and have learned to lean on each other to get the job done during crunch times.”
Norwood loosely curates her shop into the following areas: candles; drinking/glassware; kitchen/mug/tea towels; pop culture; Chicago; games; soap and self-care; baby gifts; outdoors and plants; cats and dogs; coloring books; office supplies; party supplies; and notebooks. “Because we’re limited in space, we can only hold a certain amount of inventory,” she noted. “I try to keep our best sellers stocked, while experimenting with fresh brands. In the last three and a half years we’ve brought in too many outside vendors to count.”
Being known as a greeting card source means that gifts under $50 sell best, Norwood observed. “A surprise best seller for us has been $1 slap bracelets. Our most expensive products are probably some candles in the $36-$38 range. Funny socks have also done amazingly well.”
The retail operation has informed Norwood’s wholesale offerings — and her entire brand. “As a shop owner it is easy to see what is oversaturated and where there are holes,” she explained. “I started designing funny, snarky, colorful gift bags last year because we needed some for the shop and there weren’t a lot of options. At the same time, although enamel pins are all the rage (still), I’d never make them myself. There’s enough other good ones out there, I don’t feel like I have anything unique to add.”
Summer 2018 brought a huge shock with it. “At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, a drunk driver drove into our storefront window,” Norwood described. “Luckily no one was hurt; we only had a shattered front window to deal with.”
“My staff and their significant others came in early to help clean,” she continued. “For most of the afternoon we shoveled out a huge mound of glass. We also spent many hours picking up shards from the retail floor.”
Norwood shrewdly used the mishap to her business’ advantage. “We used the gaping hole in our storefront to move in a Heidelberg Windmill Press that was too big to fit through the door. It allows us to print more accurately at a faster rate, increasing our production efficiency.”
It has become increasingly common to see entrepreneurs who are willing to utilize their businesses to further more personal aspirations — and in that regard Norwood is no exception. Although it was very difficult, she recently revealed her struggles with emotional well-being to her community — and took it one step further by introducing a notepad range, Mental Health Trackers, to help others feel less alone.
“It was a really difficult decision for me to talk about my mental health issues publicly, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had,” she emphasized. “Not only do I want to destigmatize the public opinion of what it means to struggle with mental illness, but shed light on how isolating, painful and dangerous it can be. After much thinking, and overthinking, I decided to create these notepads. Many people have responded with support and positivity, which helps reassure me I’m doing the right thing.”
As to where she sees Steel Petal Press in five years, Norwood has her dreams — but she’s flexible and realistic. “I would love to still be open and in Logan Square! Beyond that it’s hard to say because the landscape for small business can change drastically from year to year. I’ve learned to keep my options open to opportunity.”