Entrepreneur rode Fishtown revival, now looks ahead

Sarah Lewis' clearance sale. Smaller boutiques want to offer her line. (MICHAEL PEREZ / For The Inquirer)

On Fishtown's now-thriving Frankford Avenue commercial corridor, a small-business owner who recognized the strip's potential even before restaurateur Stephen Starr put his imprimatur there is calling it quits.

"Thank you for 4 wonderful years," reads the sign on the door of Adorn Boutique, the shop at 1314 Frankford that jewelry designer Sarah Lewis opened in May 2011, in a woeful space that once was a welding shop.

Don't interpret her planned closing at the end of the day Saturday negatively, Lewis said. It's not about the health of her enterprise, or about Fishtown's economic vibrancy.

"I don't want to scare other potential entrepreneurs from opening a brick-and-mortar business," said Lewis, 31, who bought the 3,136-square-foot property for $499,000 in 2010, according to property records. The site, including the space upstairs where Lewis lives, went on the market this month for $895,000.

"There are other things that have become more profitable," she said, "and the store prevents me from having the time to execute those things."

Like designing her "affordable-luxury" jewelry, and building the wholesale side of her business, recently rebranded Tribe Jewelry. Clients include Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Swell.com.

An increasing number of smaller boutiques want to carry her line, Lewis said, as are sales representatives eager to introduce it at trade shows.

"All that stuff has always been something I've wanted to do, but on the back burner because I've been wearing the boutique-owner hat every day," Lewis said.

This pivotal point comes as her business, started one year before Lewis bought the storefront in Fishtown, reaches a milestone: five years in existence. Most small businesses fail by that time, experts say.

For Lewis, survival has been due, in part, to what has happened along Frankford Avenue since she bought the property there, spending $88,000 to turn an unwelcoming facade of neon green and orange and a metal roll-down garage door into an award-winning, environmentally sensitive, inviting design of glass and repurposed wood.

When she arrived there, she said, "it just kind of felt like a war zone."

Now, within a block or two of her boutique, are Starr's popular Frankford Hall beer garden and his Fette Sau barbecue joint, as well as a massive La Colombe cafe that has proved to be a substantial people magnet.

Next door to Lewis' boutique is Kensington Quarters, the combination butcher shop/locally sourced restaurant. Less than a block south, a boutique hotel is planned.

"I haven't seen a neighborhood transform as quickly and successfully as this," said her real estate agent, Todd Levinson, owner of LivinPhilly.com, a Keller Williams team. In its first week, the Adorn Boutique listing attracted interest from restaurants, bars, a hair salon, and an architectural firm, among others, Levinson said.

Sorry to see Lewis leave the block, but not panicking about it, is Brad Helder, owner of Bottle Bar East, a carryout beer store/restaurant and entertainment venue that opened in December 2012 with an offering of more than 800 beers.

"There's more openings than closings," he said, adding that he hopes another retail use will follow Adorn.

"The more retail we have, the better balance we're going to have with all the bars and restaurants already going in in Fishtown," Helder said.

As she sat amid a store full of jewelry, clothing, handbags, scarves, and crystals marked down for clearance - even the display cases are for sale - Lewis said she would greet her last day in business on Frankford Avenue with a mix of excitement about the next phase and sadness that it won't include the face-to-face interaction with customers she has enjoyed.

But with just two part-time employees, running a store while satisfying online orders and designing jewelry became exhausting, and not the optimum business model, she said.

While declining to provide revenue specifics, Lewis said that online and wholesale business provides half of her company's income, while the boutique produces the other half - and has "taken up the vast majority of my time and creates the majority of our expenses."

"I'm excited about this transition and what lies ahead for Tribe," she said.

The store's final day will coincide with Fishtown FestivALE, an annual block party.

"Might as well go out with a bang."