Esther Park means business

University alumna, artist and entrepreneur took the leap in opening her own business

Erin Adler

Esther Park doesn’t look the part of a small- business owner.

She is 23 years old but appears even younger; she stands less than 5-feet tall, her hair is long and black, and at the crown of her head a small tuft stands straight up, like the uncooperative cowlick of a small boy.

Given context, though, Park’s hair demonstrates the creativity and chutzpah that have made her – and her boutique, Store Nico – successful.

“I cut my own hair,” she said at the end of a recent interview. “I’ve been doing it for years. I can’t afford to get it cut at a salon.”

And there probably aren’t too many area salons that would come up with such a unique cut. Park’s do-it-yourself attitude and desire to stand out in a crowd were the impetus for opening Store Nico last June. She was still a year from graduating at the University when the store, which sells art, housewares, clothing and other gifts, opened.

Park said she wanted to open the store to bring well-designed, affordable items to the area.

“I just tried to open something I thought Minneapolis-St. Paul deserved,” she said. “For a long time, it was hard for me to find a place to buy gifts I liked without going to Chicago, the coasts or the Internet.”

Interest at an early age

Growing up in Brooklyn Park, Minn., Park’s eye for art and design as a girl was likely partially because of her parents. Her mother painted as a hobby; she describes her father as “very creative,” someone who “can figure out a way to make anything.”

“I was always into art,” she said. “I was always creating my own anything, doing crafts, drawing and coloring. My mom taught me how to sew as a kid, and I tried to make clothes.”

She originally wanted to major in clothing design at the University but felt her sewing skills weren’t “up to par.” The school didn’t offer a minor in clothing design, so she moved toward cultural studies. As a junior, however, she discovered an interest – and talent – for screenprinting.

Today, Park’s screenprints hang on the walls of Store Nico.

She is inspired by commercial art from the ’60s and early ’70s, she said. To make her prints, she scans old journals and newspapers for advertisements or illustrations, using all or part of them and layering her own drawings on top.

Despite the framed prints and the fact that she also makes jewelry to sell at her store, Park said she does not consider herself an artist.

“I just run a shop; I’m just a person who really appreciates design Ö I don’t know if I’m up to caliber enough to be called an artist,” she said.

Whether she gives herself the label or not, many of the items in the store, while functional, are also pieces of art.

Park said she is “very picky” about the merchandise she sells. “I want art and good design to be more affordable for the average person. I wish art wasn’t so elitist,” she said.

Entrepreneurship 101

Park began thinking about opening her own boutique while working at a local gift shop. She grew tired of stocking merchandise that she would never buy, despite having a generous discount.

As the idea took form, she paid more attention to the buyers at her former place of employment. She began asking them questions and read several books on starting small businesses.

As one might expect, money is the biggest challenge for someone opening his or her own business, she said. This is especially true if, as a college student, banks won’t loan you money to cover the many start-up costs.

Park was undaunted, though, and asked friends and families for loans she would pay back on a gradual basis.

“Other than that, I figured out what needed to be done and found a way to do it myself or with the help of friends,” she said.

Her parents were worried, of course, but she said they supported her. “They’re always supportive of me, even if I have a stupid idea,” she said.

Challenges and rewards

Park said that one thing potential entrepreneurs should know is that it’s a lonely lifestyle, one that leaves little time for anything else.

“You’ll put all your time into the store,” she said.

She also added that, after the excitement of the first week, it’s not very exciting.

Nearly a year later, however, her business is doing well. She said she was thrilled when, eight months into the endeavor, City Pages named Store Nico “The Best New Boutique.” The award has likely brought new customers into the store – a white, modern space with clean lines and no clutter.

Sometimes, high school girls come in and ask why the store is so bare, she said.

“They’re used to shopping at Target, where there are racks everywhere,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of crap to show – what I have is the best I’ve found.”

Park said she’s also met many creative people in the last year who enjoy making things as she does, rather than buying mass-produced goods.

“People need to be persuaded not by what they’re told is the latest trend, but what they think is cool,” she said. “That’s the whole point of the store. Do your own thing; I’m doing mine,” she said.

Park is definitely doing her “own thing”- right down to her hair.