Wine, Culture: Why These Upstart Entrepreneurs Chose Grapevine
1 Aug 2023
There are countless reasons to visit Grapevine. Some people come for the history, others for the dining and drinks. Still more choose our City for its wealth of quality retail. The market is so packed with good things, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine room for any more. But there’s always space to dream in Grapevine, and a pair of ambitious startups are looking to fill a few more gaps on Main Street.
As of early 2023, the Historic District is home to two new cultural uses: RTown Art Gallery and Talking Animals Books. Both woman-owned-and-operated, these spaces add new dimensions to an already beloved area of Grapevine. And, because each was the brainchild of a Grapevine native, they’re uniquely suited to take advantage of two converging factors:
The burgeoning strength of downtown Grapevine and a national groundswell in entrepreneurship.
RTown Brings Art to Our Town
For Rachel Townshend-Cerny, the owner and gallerist at RTown Art Gallery, walls covered in colorful canvas are the manifestation of a childhood dream. The daughter of two Grapevine small business owners, Cerny grew up loving the City and the local school district, but always felt like an outlier. Her father sells insurance. Her mother is a property manager. She wanted to be an artist.
“Owning my own gallery space was a pipe dream in college. I didn’t really have the building blocks of how to do it,” Cerny said. “My parents are both entrepreneurs, so I’ve kind of seen how it is to work for yourself and do something for yourself. I know it’s possible. So that was always in my head, but when the opportunity presented itself I decided to test the idea.”
With a little help from local foundry artist Linda Lewis (whose bronze sculptures can be spotted throughout the historic district), Cerny found a temporary launch pad near the transit district at the South end of Main Street. When it became clear she couldn’t stay there, staff at the City’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and here in Economic Development helped her connect with someone who could give her a permanent home. Now, she subleases a space beside Tim Hogan’s Carpets & Floors. And she wants nothing more than to spread the gift of Grapevine Main Street by providing other artists an opportunity to showcase their work.
“I’m from Grapevine, born and raised. I grew up here and I’ve seen it grow as I’ve grown,” Cerny said. “I love this town. I know it. And being a business owner on Main Street, we have an amazing community. We have the HDGA meetings once a month, where all the merchants can come together and help each other. I don’t think I would have that same community or support if I was to open in a strip center somewhere.”
Having benefitted from community support, Cerny is now seeking to provide other artists with the same privilege. Her gallery is home to a rotating series of pieces with styles and color as unique as the people who created them. She’s committed to giving others the same thing she longed for as a young artist with almost no exposure. Whether by displaying and selling their art or hosting events that bring artists together, she wants to see artists take root in the town that raised her.
“I’m in this to try and grow Grapevine culturally with a gallery space. We’re not just a commercial gallery where, you know, we have artwork that sits here until it sells. We’re rotating it constantly and we’re having shows... people know that Dallas has a great art scene. I want to have a great art scene here. I think Grapevine has so many wonderful things to offer with the wineries, the travel, and the different festivals. Why not art?”
It’s Not Narnia, But It’s Still Magic
If Cerny’s story begins with a dream in need of space, Talking Animals Books presents a mirror image. Their business model sprang out of an empty storefront and a vision for what might fill it. Katy Lemieux and her co-owner, Valerie Walizadeh, met on Facebook after Lemieux’s vision for an independent bookstore took off on Kickstarter last summer. For one, the shop was a jolt of inspiration. For the other, a lifelong dream that seemed perpetually out of reach.
“I didn’t know her, but we kind of go in the same circles of moms. So we have one mutual friend that we’re both really good friends with, and I saw what she was doing with the Kickstarter,” Walizadeh said. “I’ve always dreamed owning a bookstore – who doesn’t? Every person that comes in here is like ‘you’re living the dream!’ – so when I saw her doing it, I was just like: ‘she’s making it happen.’ It’s always just kind of a pipedream; something you want to do but you don’t do it. So I just reached out to our mutual friend and asked if she’d want to partner. Literally two seconds later, we were on a text thread. And then we went to lunch and that was that.”
“It really was like an arranged marriage,” Lemieux added. “More than the product or the inventory, we were interested in an experience for the community. That was important to me when I had younger kids: I just didn’t have anywhere to go and I felt like my brain was dying. I wanted information and I wanted to talk to people. So I think the combination of the retail experience but also the love of books; Valerie is able to translate that into something real. In my mind, it was just an idea. She had the dream and the experience to cultivate it.”
Together, the duo is building a brand that prioritizes community connection. They chose a building on the opposite side of town from the one that inspired them, but couldn’t deny their realtor’s insistence that Main Street was the place to be. They, too, benefit from the wisdom of longtime tenants in the Historic District. And, while they acknowledge that the name Talking Animals – inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia – may sound whimsical, they want to emphasize that their shop is more than a place for kids. As the man behind Narnia once observed, the best kid-friendly things appeal to adults, too.
“C.S. Lewis famously said that ‘a children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.’ There’s a real love of stories and a real world that Lewis created in the Chronicles of Narnia, and the talking animals are what really makes that world different from the human world,” Lemieux said. “The poetry lover in me wants to use that language in a way that is evocative of a larger idea. Talking Animals makes you think of children – and when you come into the store it’s friendly to children and families and parents – but there’s something for everyone here, I hope.”
Following the advice of other local indie shops, Walizadeh and Lemieux started with a small canon of classical and popular books. The rest of their collection has been slowly assembled through community engagement, social media suggestions, and meticulous research of lesser-known titles for which fans of more popular series may have an appetite. But books are only part of the business plan: they’re also hoping to activate the space with live events, kids’ play areas, and author appearances. From chess to Dungeons & Dragons, they’re building their event board the same way they’ve built everything else: one suggestion at a time.
More than anything, they want to build a community that inspires the next generation of readers. And they struck at a paradoxically perfect moment.
Americans Are Just Getting Started
Given the upheaval of a global pandemic and the soaring price of everything from energy to interest rates, the market would appear to be tough for small business owners. But, overall, Americans are undeterred. In fact, more applications for new businesses have been filed in each of the last two years than the pre-pandemic baseline. The record-breaking surge of startups announced in 2021 hardly slowed, and by the end of 2022 more than 3.5 Million Americans had filed to launch a business in the post-pandemic era.
The Economic Innovation Group projects that the US will hold or beat that pace in 2023, with the number of “new businesses likely to hire employees” outpacing last year’s blistering growth by 7% so far. While there are certain to be a myriad of factors at play in the broader trend, both Cerny at the team at Talking Animals pointed to a cultural shift in the American psyche as a primary benefit of the emerging market.
“I think the pandemic shifted everyone’s mindset of how we approach work and how we approach rest or leisure time,” Lemieux said. “There’s a place for people who want a more intentional experience. They want to seek out a space where other people are like them. And we have such a need for community after the pandemic. After the way our economy has shifted and changed... going back to your community was something that the pandemic really forced, and I do think that was to the benefit of places like ours that are providing an independent experience.”
The same goes for art and bespoke retail products, all of which benefit from the democratization of resources that once required high levels of expertise and access.
“You definitely saw a rise of jewelry makers and self-taught artists,” Cerny said. “It makes sense: we all can make a website now. We all can market ourselves on social media. I think in the 80s or something, consumerism was huge because you could buy a lot for cheap. Now I think people prefer to get something they can hold onto and value versus cycling through your décor every two years.”
These days, no matter what kind of lasting connection you’re looking to make, Grapevine has something to offer. That’s as true for customers as it is for the people looking to serve them. And it’ll be the secret behind thousands of small business successes for years to come.
For more information about these and other great businesses in our City, check out the ‘Growing Grapevine’ eNewsletter and Podcast. To learn more about RTown Art gallery, visit rtowngallery.com. You can also peruse the online inventory at Talking Animals books or support the store from afar by processing online orders through bookshop.org.