Diane Mastrull: The bottom line: More than cloth diapers

Angela Halperin of CLOTH. Shai and Angela Halperin were having a baby and so, naturally, they gave birth to business inspired by their needs as parents. Cloth is a natural products baby store serving a need that wasn't being met in Philly, baby industry experts say. The store on Passyunk Avenue provides, for instance, a retail space where parents can try on a large assortment of baby-wearing carriers and see up close and ask questions about the variety of brands and the how-to of cloth diapering. There's also a parenting center component, which, advocates say, have become important in helping retail young parents as city dwellers, July 8, 2013. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

Editor's Note: This column is sponsored by TD Bank. The opinions and analysis expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TD Bank, N.A. or its affiliates.

There's really no delicate way to put this: A successful landing for Angela Shaw-Halperin's entrepreneurial leap will depend on poop.

It's a four-letter word the former second-grade teacher figures she says "about 800 times a day."

With husband Shai, Shaw-Halperin owns Cloth, a place that, as the name implies, specializes in the opposite of disposable diapers - and in getting new parents comfortable with that option from generations past.

But to call her new retail outpost in South Philadelphia a store is to do it a great disservice. Shaw-Halperin wants her 1,200 square feet on East Passyunk Avenue, near 11th and Tasker Streets, to be nothing short of a place of empowerment, education, and community-building for young parents.

If all goes as she envisions, Cloth's impact will be big: Customers' children will live healthier lives; the planet will be better off, and, just maybe, couples will have another reason to stay in the city once they start families.

Reaching profitability also would be welcome.

"When I had my son three years ago, I was really wanting a place like this to be in existence, and it wasn't," said Shaw-Halperin, 35, who lives in Philadelphia's East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood.

So she set out to change that, in rented space on a commercially eclectic stretch of East Passyunk Avenue. Her motivation for opening Cloth before she had even finished writing a business plan was based on pure instinct: that people (like her and her husband) who were opting for natural-parenting methods wanted a neighborhood resource to help.

A competitive urge had something to do with it, too: "If I didn't do it, somebody else would."

Downtown, that is.

The Nesting House in West Mount Airy carries cloth diapers and natural-parenting products similar to Cloth's wares, such as chemical-free soaps and shampoos. It offers parenting workshops, as does Cloth, which opened June 8. But the Nesting House is a half-hour-or-more drive from South Philadelphia.

In Fairmount, Ali's Wagon offers parenting classes on, among other topics, breast-feeding, Lamaze, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation of infants and children. It also sells baby clothes and toys, but as part of a broader inventory of housewares and gifts.

Where Cloth is unique, Shaw-Halperin contends, is in its exclusive focus on natural parenting, including its extensive inventory of cloth diapers and accessories (no more pins!), combined with its playroom and resource center. There, customers can try on baby wraps and carriers, learn the ins and outs of cloth diapering, and attend support groups on a range of birthing and baby-raising topics.

For Center City residents, natural parenting has had to be, by and large, an online-shopping, Internet-research experience. In other words, quite isolating and intimidating, said Marisa Piccarreto, a Logan Square mother of three and baby-planning consultant who operates My Fabulous Mama.

"It's really going to help knit parents together and help communities grow," Piccarreto said of Cloth. "They're creating that small-town feel."

And creating more exposure for other local entrepreneurs riding the natural-parenting wave. Among them is Christine Stevens, owner/seamstress at Fancy Cloth Baby, a cloth-diaper manufacturer and retailer at www.fancyclothbaby.com, which has headquarters at her Eddystone home.

Stevens, 28, the mother of three boys (ages 2, 4, and 6), has been making and selling diapers from hemp and organic cotton since her last pregnancy in 2010. Sales doubled from 2011 to 2012, with orders coming from virtually every U.S. state and Australia, Ireland, and Canada. She recently launched a line of all-natural body-care products under the brand Soapbox Holistics, including diaper-rash cream, baby-wipe serum, and sunscreen.

When she noticed a Facebook mention about Cloth just before it opened, Stevens saw opportunity.

"I contacted [Shaw-Halperin] and said: 'I am so happy to hear about your store. I'd love working with you,' " said Stevens, who succeeded at working her diapers onto Cloth's sales shelves.

A brick-and-mortar outlet is good for the cloth-diapering movement, Stevens said: "With a physical store, it just opens so many more opportunities for someone who is interested in cloth diapering. There's a person . . . that can give you advice immediately on the spot."

It's the kind of confidence-booster Heather Miller said was not available in the neighborhood when she gave birth to her son, Owen, 16 months ago.

"I didn't cloth-diaper my son, and I wanted to. It seemed really daunting," Miller, 34, said during a recent visit to Cloth to buy a sun hat, a reusable snack bag, and a seahorse mobile for Owen.

With the store - and Shaw-Halperin there to offer advice - just two blocks from home, Miller said, "I think I might give it a whirl with No. 2."

No pun intended.


Diane Mastrull: >Inquirer.com

Angela Shaw-Halperin of Cloth speaks to the meaning of the store's name. www.inquirer.com/cloth

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @dmastrull on Twitter.