By Angie Landsverk
Focusing on American Made and Fair Trade
Alison Springs opened a store filled with feel-good products during the height of the Great Recession and said that sometimes, it is the unexpected that makes all the difference.
“I was a cancer researcher, designing and testing novel therapeutics for breast cancer. The recession took its toll and the hospital where I was employed terminated all bench research,” she said. “I found myself with a Ph.D. but no job and no local job prospects. Being tied to the area and not being one capable of sitting around for long, I devised a new life plan … and have never looked back.”
Alison opened Green Springs in Seneca, South Carolina, in the fall of 2009. While her background is in research science, immunology, and toxicology, she grew up working at her mother’s flower and gift shop and learned a lot about retail there.
That experience resulted in Alison acquiring an education in small business and being able to open Green Springs with a solid foundation. “I grew up watching my mother manage employees, handle accounting, manage cash flow and inventory, as well as product selection,” she said. “This ‘secret education’ allowed me to open Green Springs and to be successful in doing so.”
Alison explained the meaning behind her store’s name. “I chose the name Green Springs as a nod to my mother’s long-standing store, The Red Door. I chose green, as the store has a focus on reuse and sustainability,” she said. “Springs is my last name but also a bit of a notion of a new beginning following my departure from pharmaceutical research.”
Opening a gift store in 2009 was quite daunting, she said. “About a year after I opened, there was one gorgeous sunny Saturday afternoon, and the store was filled with customers. There was a pleasant buzz in the store of people laughing, sharing items they found … and it hit me that day that I had built what I set out to build. This was my first feeling of ‘I made it,’” Alison said.
The Store’s Focus
Green Springs sells American-made handcrafted goods and handcrafted goods from its fair-trade partners around the world. This includes pottery, candles, soaps, baskets, jewelry, totes, and more.
When Alison opened the store, her first focus was American-made goods. “Back then, it was difficult to source American made. Thankfully, more consumers and more businesses have put a focus on American-made goods, making them more abundant and easier to find,” she said. “After traveling to Haiti and Honduras to visit and assist in children’s homes, I added the focus of purchasing handmade goods from fair-trade partners. I believe both missions are important. I believe in the empowerment of work, and I believe that all workers should be paid a fair wage.”
She finds American-made goods and handmade goods from fair-trade partners every way possible and sees that as being the most fun. “I use the typical avenues of trade shows and trade magazines to find goods, but I also rely on customer recommendations, artists dropping in the store, and the Fair Trade Federation,” Alison said.
Addison Pottery and Clarkware Pottery are currently the star potters, she said. “Both pottery lines are helmed by strong and talented South Carolina women. Another line that has sold well for us for years is enameled metal sea life art from 10th Avenue West, who is wonderful to work with,” Alison said. “Our customers are also huge fans of Milkhouse Candle Co., a candle company which uses American-grown soy and beeswax for their candles, which have a wide selection of fabulous fragrances. During the holiday season, Meadowbrooke Gourds are a favorite in the shop.”
Her customers love the store’s unique gift selection. “My staff are all wonderful happy people, and my customers often remark how friendly my team is,” Alison said.
She said her team goes through fairly extensive training, so each staff member knows the origin and mission of the products and can give in-depth answers and gift suggestions to customers.
Since opening the store in 2009, Alison faced the Great Recession and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In 2020, like everyone else, I faced the trials of COVID-19 and quarantines, along with the subsequent supply chain issues. To add to the turmoil of COVID-19, my town was hit by an EF-3 tornado in April 2020,” Alison said. “While overall the downtown retail district was very fortunate and survived with minimal damage, Green Springs had to get a new roof, as ours was damaged in the tornado.”
Green Springs is in its third location. “We started in 2009 at a location across the street from our current location. In 2015, we moved to a larger location, and in 2021, we moved to our current and largest location,” said Alison, who has a purchase option on the building and never plans to move again.
Seneca is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “While Seneca still exudes the small-town charm, the downtown area is growing with locally owned, independent businesses. It is refreshing to see a community support small business,” Alison said.
The store is in a historic downtown district. “When I opened Green Springs, many of the other stores were welcoming and treated me like a partner rather than a competitor. I believe that is how small businesses should treat each other,” she said. “I train all of my staff to direct customers to the other wonderful shops in our downtown.”
Alison participates in downtown events and believes it is important to give back to the community. “For every Milkhouse Candle purchased at Green Springs, Green Springs donates $1 to the BackPack Program of Oconee County,” she said. “It is our way of helping to break the cycle of poverty.”
Advice for Others
She said a business owner can enter a community as a team player and identify their own niche rather than copying an existing business. “Develop your business as you go along. I certainly started small with Green Springs and watched my cash flow closely,” Alison said. “When I opened, I had zero backstock. Each week, I would purchase a bit more for the store, and that immediately made customers return to see what was new.”
Alison advertises seasonally in the local newspaper and in local magazines geared toward tourism. She has found Facebook-targeted ads to provide the best return on her advertising dollars.
She said it is important to keep learning. “Take a tax seminar class, find a lunch and learn series, read something by Paco Underhill or your favorite retail anthropologist, read something by your least favorite retail anthropologist,” she said.
Alison shared what she likes most about her work. “I love the hunt for great new products. I love finding new artists and helping them grow and expand their craft. I thoroughly enjoy working with my team. I learn a lot from my staff. I absolutely love helping customers find that perfect item, too,” she said. “I also really love being a part of many families’ traditions. I see many customers who come back year after year, especially at Christmas time. I love hearing, ‘We always get Mom something from here!’”
Facts at a Glance
Business Name: Green Springs
Location: 120 Ram Cat Alley, Seneca, SC 29678
Size: 2,200 sq. ft.
Trade Shows Attended: Las Vegas and Atlanta
Product Categories: American made and fair trade: home décor, home fragrance, jewelry, accessory, toy
Social Media: Facebook
POS System: Old-fashioned cash register