BABE #309: CALLI NICOLETTI SWOFFORD - Owner, Miller Lane Mercantile
Calli is the owner of Miller Lane Mercantile, a Denver, CO-based homewares shop that was born out of a love for simple goods and slow living. Combining beauty with practicality, the product assortment at Miller Lane includes kitchenware, ceramics, gourmet food provisions, home decor, women's accessories, stationery, and more. Calli always dreamt of creating a brand from scratch, and this desire finally came to fruition with Miller Lane. As the one-woman-show, she handles all aspects of the day-to-day shop operations and the various responsibilities behind the scenes. She’s intentional, dedicated and on her way to enhancing Denver’s retail scene, one day at a time.
Hometown: East Hampton, NY
Current city: Denver, CO
Alma mater: The College of Charleston
Degree: B.A., Media Studies; Minor, Film Studies
Very first job: Working at a surf shop at age 14
Hustle: Owner, Miller Lane Mercantile
Babe you admire and why?
Before I opened my shop, I worked for the photo goods startup Artifact Uprising. The company was run by two sisters, Jenna Walker and Katie Thurmes. They showed me that kindness has a space in the workplace, and I took so much away from my experience working with them about the type of boss I wanted to one day be.
How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
When I’m not at the shop, my day usually starts with a long walk around the neighborhood with my Golden Pyrenees, Goose. Often I’ll throw on a podcast but I also love the quiet of the morning to collect my thoughts and just enjoy the sunshine. If I can swing it, I’ll take a yoga class or head out on one of the many hiking trails outside of Denver. I love finishing the day cooking dinner with my husband and eating in our backyard, glass of wine in hand.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
About a year ago, some friends of ours started a matcha company, so I ordered a tin on their website to support their new venture. A few weeks later, I was 100% hooked. I love the steady energy that comes with matcha, compared to the spikes you often get with coffee. I make a matcha latte every morning with soy milk, honey, maca powder, and a little cinnamon. It’s heaven.
Current power anthem?
Everything on the Maggie Rogers album, Heard It In a Past Life.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
A charcuterie board followed by warm chocolate chip cookies. What’s better than that?
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Mary Oliver. I’ve been reading her poetry for many years and her writing has influenced me more than any others. I sleep with one of her books on my nightstand, so I can’t think of many things that would fill me up more than a conversation with Mary.
What’s something most don’t know about you?
I’ve become fascinated by the enneagram personality test and am a true 9, “the peacekeeper”. As a nine, one of our most innate desires is to create harmony within ourselves and our environment. I think that has definitely come to fruition in opening the shop and wanting to create a welcoming space for both myself and the community.
What tools + resources help you in your day-to-day work?
I used so many organization and communication tools in my last marketing job to work cross-functionally with other colleagues. Now that I work independently, I don’t have a need for the same tools, so starting from scratch and finding tools that aid my new industry was really important. After researching a number of POS platforms, I decided to use Square for Retail. Being able to create effective sales reports and access my data from my phone anywhere I am allows me to make decisions on the fly. I also use an online wholesale platform called Faire, which bridges the gap between retailers and smaller makers and makes their products much more accessible to brick-and-mortar shops. Their business model is amazing: try anything out for 60 days, and if it doesn’t work for your shop, you can return it free of cost (you don’t even pay for shipping). It’s allowed me to test products and product categories I might have been more bullish to, knowing I would be stuck with inventory if it didn’t sell. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the retail industry.
Tell us about your hustle, providing an overview of your job and roles.
This past February I opened Miller Lane Mercantile, a homewares shop in Denver. I’m pretty much a one-woman-show, handling all aspects of the day-to-day shop operations as well as the responsibilities behind the scenes. I also freelance in product marketing, which provides some financial stability in the early stages of my business. While it can certainly wear on me at times, owning and curating my own shop has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember, so I’m grateful for the chance to bring it to life. I have no idea how many hours I work in a given week, and I’m totally fine with that.
What does your typical workday look like? Which various ‘hats’ do you wear throughout the day?
I open the shop at 11am most days, so my morning hours have become extremely sacred. For the first time in my working life, I’m not rushing out the door to get to an office, so I love that I have a few early hours dedicated to myself and whatever I need to do to start my day off right. There are a number of ways I fill those hours, including journaling, taking my dog on long walks, working on a freelance project, managing my email inbox, or simply grabbing a cup of tea and sitting out in my backyard to reset. No matter the task, I make sure I’m intentional about slowing down and enjoying the “me” time. I live within walking distance of my shop, so I head over and will first tidy up from the day before. During business hours when I’m not working with customers, I’m usually managing inventory, merchandising the shop, planning social media posts, researching makers or doing some sort of administrative work. But the best part of my day is connecting with people who pop in, and sharing my Miller Lane vision with them.
What has your background in retail looked like up leading up to the launch of your own shop?
I worked in the retail industry for 9 years before opening Miller Lane, beginning with my first job at a surf shop in my hometown. I worked in boutiques throughout high school and college, and came to really love the small shop environment. While working at a shop in college, the owner started asking for my input on buying inventory, and the added responsibility and creative outlet really changed things for me. I became an assistant buyer, and always looked forward to curating the shop’s offerings. After graduating college, I started working in marketing, where I continued to help startups with brand and product marketing, always returning to my desire to one day create a brand of my own. By the time I opened Miller Lane Mercantile, I had been slowly and steadily planning for years – saving funds, creating a business plan, and eventually searching for the right physical space. When the opportunity came along, I knew it was the right one and jumped in without looking back.
What inspired Miller Lane Mercantile? What has the evolution of the shop been like since you created it, and what was the most important piece of your vision for it?
“Miller Lane” is an ode to the street my first house was on as a child. Back in the 80’s, my dad bought a cottage close to town in the village of East Hampton on Long Island—a place he knew his whole life, growing up in Montauk just 10 miles East. Shortly after purchasing the house, he met my mom and the two got married and started their lives together in the house on Miller Lane. As time went on, that little house continued to hold an idyllic place in my mind and heart. It represents the good life—a life built on the values of simplicity. When working on plans for the shop I wanted to create, I kept coming back to those principles; and thinking of the humble home with the rolling hill in the backyard on Miller Lane.
What’s your personal style like? How has it evolved over time, and how does your shop reflect it?
When it comes to any type of purchase, I am naturally drawn to things that are simple and timeless. I try to buy items that I know are made well, and have been becoming more in tune to where pieces are made and the practices behind the production. I’m drawn to natural, coastal tones like blues, neutrals, and white, and the shop itself is definitely a visual representation of this. My hope has always been that the store feels warm and inviting, while also providing inspiration and introductions to brands and makers that are typically less available in the Denver area.
How do you decide where to source your products from? What do you value and look for in the companies you choose to work with in your day-to-day?
Finding goods with great packaging and innovative design that are useful in everyday life has always been a passion of mine. On travels, I come prepared with a laundry list of shops or spaces I want to visit during my stay. Whether I’m at a grocery store or high-end home decor shop, I’m always taking down notes on my phone of brands, products, or decorative ideas to look into later on. I’ve also leaned heavily on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest to find smaller makers or brands that are less widespread. I started doing both of these things way before I opened Miller Lane, so by the time I signed my lease, I had hundreds of brands to reach out to. My buying philosophy has been that if it isn’t something I either already own or want in my own home, I don’t bring it in. I have an attachment to everything in the shop and I think customers can sense that from the moment they walk in. Most of our products are sourced from cities like Austin, Portland, LA, and New York – but I’ve started working with a few local ceramicists and gourmet food producers here in Denver which has allowed me to support local businesses in a new way. When a maker hand-delivers their goods to the shop, it makes my entire day. It’s a privilege to shine a little spotlight on folks here in town that are creating great things.
How have your past professional and academic experiences and lessons prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
There was a point a few years ago where I felt frustrated that my experience was so wide-ranging, rather than refined. I had always worked for startups or small independent businesses and my responsibilities were so varied; I was the “jack-of-all-trades” type. I envied people who had a very specific skillset and a true area of expertise. But opening a business requires the most varied skillset of all, and once I realized that was what I was supposed to do, it all started to make sense. The years I spent in sales, events, social media, branding, and product strategy were preparing me to build my own company.
What would you say is your biggest career milestone to date and why?
Leaving my 9-to-5 to go out on my own and open Miller Lane Mercantile is my biggest milestone, plain and simple. I had been working in marketing for 7+ years when I left and jumped headfirst into the retail industry and entrepreneurship. I knew it would be a lot of learning as I went, but creating a brand from scratch is something I’ve wanted to do since the very beginning.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience? What can we do to create more equal, uplifting (and well-paying!) spaces for women in your industry?
It’s really amazing how many women entrepreneurs there are in the retail industry; I’m surrounded and supported by many women in my daily life, from other shop owners to designers, artists, makers, and more. I’d say about 70% of the brands we carry are woman-owned. Shoutout to Palermo Body, Uni Jewelry, MINNA, Bembien, Appointed, and so, SO many more!
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving? Why or why not?
Women today are showing up in the retail space and really thriving. One of the catalysts for opening my shop was seeing so many other women in the industry creating the space to do what they love. I think we’ll only see more women stepping up and running their own retail businesses in the years to come.
What would you say is your biggest strength in your role? What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
I think my biggest strength is in curation—of the products, the physical space, and the social media presence. My background in digital marketing forced me to understand visual aesthetic in a way that’s not necessarily natural to all business owners. I know social media and marketing are aspects that many businesses outsource, so being able to tackle them myself has been empowering. I’m not a photographer, I don’t have design training, but I’m proud of what I’ve created so far and am excited to continue refining my skills there. In terms of areas of improvement, I’ve never taken a business or finance class in all my years of schooling (film studies and art history sounded a lot more fun at the time). There’s lots to learn and I feel like I’m playing a bit of catch-up at times, but there’s something really special about expanding your knowledge and seeing the direct effect on your business that keeps it motivating.
Off the top of your head, what are some of your favorite (past or present) products you’ve sold at Miller Lane? What products are you looking out for at the moment?
One of the first makers I reached out to when I secured my physical location was Hillery Sproatt. She’s a California-based designer who makes the most beautiful knitted blankets from recycled cotton. They’re really special pieces for the home and make amazing gifts for a wedding or housewarming. Another one of my favorite brands we carry is The Floral Society out of New York. We sell their taper candles, ceramic candle holders, floral seed packs, and more. Their packaging in spectacular and the pieces themselves are really timeless and understated. I love the aesthetic they bring to the store, and I love it even more when the pieces find their way into new homes!
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
I have two female business owners as neighbors which I feel insanely thankful for. Working for yourself (and by yourself) can feel lonely at times, so having them next door is a true blessing. Almost every day, we have an unofficial morning sync and are constantly stopping by each other’s shops to chat or bounce ideas around. The three of us moved into the neighborhood around the same time, so it’s nice to have friends who are on a similar career path. There are also a number of female shop owners and entrepreneurs that I’ve been following along with for years and look to creatively. Serena Mitnik-Miller of General Store in California shares her honest approach to being an artist, shop owner, author, and mother, which is inspiring in so many ways. I also love Beth Kirby of Local Milk’s podcast, Raw Milk. She brings on really interesting women in many diverse creative fields and hosts discussions around creating balance between joining the hustle and slowing down.
Career and/or life advice for other babes (both inside and outside of you industry?)
I once had a mentor tell me that if you have an idea for a business, let funding be the last aspect you think about. If your foundation for a business concept is solid and you believe it in enough, you’ll find a way to come up with the money. That idea was really liberating for me as I was planning my shop, and allowed me to focus on my product assortment, branding, and overall concept without stressing over my finances. When the time was right for me to open, I was able to come up with the financing just as my mentor had said.
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