After putting her career on the back burner once she became a mom, former architect Mae Chan Frey quickly found herself missing the creative element that she’d always appreciated in her field. When a friend mentioned her interest in opening a shop in their Oakland neighborhood, the Maryland native jumped at the chance to be a part of it, and eventually found that her love for design would come through in carefully curating her retail selection.
12 years later, Ruby’s Garden (named for Frey’s daughter) has continued to evolve, maintaining its charm as a sweet neighborhood kid’s shop stocked with toys, clothing, books, and forging its own path in a time where e-commerce is dominating the industry. Since our love for small, locally-owned shops runs deep, we thought Mae was an ideal person to chat about her path from stay-at-home motherhood to store owner, what Ruby’s Garden has added to the neighborhood, and the biggest challenges (and rewards!) of owning your own business.
How did you first get into the retail business?
My friend Mary was planning to open a flower shop in my neighborhood just when I was a stay-at-home mom itching to go back to work, so I jumped in because it sounded fun and I knew that my daughter would have fun there with me too. We started as a very small baby store inside with a flower stand outside.
And where did the focus on kids items specifically come from?
It was the headspace I was in as a stay-at-home mother. Shopping for baby shower gifts in my area led to the usual options at the mall, and I didn’t love what I found there. I wanted to find gifts that were more unique and artful, and I assumed others in my area would enjoy that too. I started discovering local makers creating great products for kids, and many of them were women like me, trying to make a work life that would thrive alongside the big work of mothering.
I love getting to know my customer’s stories and especially giving encouragement to new mothers.
What do you hope for Ruby's Garden to offer the Oakland community that's unique?
In the early years, we didn’t have that many customers, but the ones we had we really got to know well. Both Mary and I were good at hanging out with whoever came in, and that became our store’s ethos. Even now, almost twelve years later, I love getting to know my customer’s stories and especially giving encouragement to new mothers who come in so very tired and stretched to their limits. I’ve been fortunate to find staff with similar values to care for our customers like new friends.
What's the best part of owning a small local business in Oakland?
I love how it makes me part of the fabric of my neighborhood. Temescal is made up of small shops run on the energy and creativity of owner-operators there every day trying our best to serve our customers and make a satisfying life for ourselves. The same is true for the local brands I carry. I feel like part of a team of heroic small business owners! I’m also a Temescal resident; I live blocks from my shop. I’ve already said how much I love my customers, who are also my neighbors. I’ve heard so many stories over these years of the heroic lives they lead in the world and in their families. They are a constant inspiration.
And what's the biggest challenge?
We’ve all heard for the past ten+ years that Internet shopping was going to kill brick-and-mortar businesses. It is hard to believe how true that has become with the closing of so very many small shops. Meanwhile online shopping is just getting bigger and more the norm than the exception. My business has thrived because of local people valuing local businesses, but the tide is turning and the generation having babies right now is different from when we first started. My challenge is to compete in this new world of millennials seeking unique experiences while demanding all the conveniences of shopping online.
Do you have a personal favorite children's book?
I love my book section; I treat it like a gallery of art that comes with the best stories about how to be a whole and wonderful human. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d pick from my classics that I used to read to Ruby: Hug by Jez Alborough. It’s the story of a little chimp and the love of his village helping him find his way back to his mama. Even though there’s just one word on every spread (hug), somehow it manages to convey deep kindness of friends and the deep love between a mother and child.
Fill in the blanks:
My go-to baby shower gift is____________.
A going-out outfit for baby and a beautiful board book
The thing I love most about working with children is ____________.
Their brutal honesty! It’s so refreshing, and a quality of my favorite adults too.
The three words I'd use to describe Oakland to someone who's never visited would be _____.
Community, Creative, Exciting