Like expert fingers knitting a long scarf, Danielle Romanetti is busy.
Romanetti’s yarn shop fibre space (1319 Prince Street) is prepped and ready for Plaid Friday, an alternative to Black Friday for shoppers who want to find local deals in Old Town. Back when she first opened in 2009, Romanetti was one of the first business owners in the city to recognize the holiday weekend as an opportunity to capitalize.
A dozen years later, more than 50 independent Alexandria businesses participate in Shop Small Week.
“When I first opened, I asked my neighbors about Black Friday,” Romanetti recalled. “I was told, ‘Oh, we don’t open that day. Everybody goes to the mall.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s the biggest shopping day of the year, and we own retail stores. So, I’m gonna be open at 6 a.m.'”
Romanetti made waves this year by welcoming Vice President Kamala Harris to her shop. It was Harris’ first visit outside the White House since taking office, and Romanetti later appeared with her on a “Women Making History” special on Lifetime. Romanetti also hosted political events, and was featured on GMA3, an offshoot of Good Morning America.
Last month, after a long year of ups and downs, Romanetti’s shop tied with The Jen Walker Team and was awarded the Small Business of the Year award by The Chamber ALX.
A lot has changed for the Pittsburgh native over the last couple years, and except on Plaid Friday, Romanetti is hardly ever seen behind the counter of her own shop anymore. She can usually be found working behind her computer at local coffee shops, or sequestered deep in her office above fibre space, the latter of which was where she was recently interviewed by ALXnow.
ALXnow: How has your day-to-day life changed since you first opened fibre space in 2009?
Romanetti: I have more staff, for sure. I think I opened with only two employees, and I was working full-time at the cash wrap. My desk was one part of the L of the cash register, so that when customers came in, I could turn away from my own marketing, reordering and bookkeeping, and then turn to help them. So, that’s certainly not happening anymore.
ALXnow: Are you easy to work with?
Romanetti: I try to stay away from the team downstairs and let them do their jobs. I don’t want to micromanage them. I’ve done their job, I don’t want to do it. I have a great manager and a phenomenal team, and they manage the front of house, and they tell me what they need and what we should be pushing and marketing. They tell me what the trends are or what’s blowing up on Instagram. They tell me what I need to do. So, that’s off my plate now, because they’re really driving the front of the house and I’m managing the back of the house.
ALXnow: How would you describe your leadership style?
Romanetti: I like to have people understand their roles, like have them be very clear and mapped out, so that I stay in my lane, and they stay in theirs. I want to be hands-off, and I dip my toes in when I need to, or when I feel like they need help, but I don’t want to be micromanaging what they’re doing.
ALXnow: What’s the secret to making it in business in Alexandria?
Romanetti: There are a lot of businesses that have opened here and are now gone that tried to operate in a silo. They’re not tapped into information and people and community, and that’s a shame because that’s like 99% of the benefit of being here. Let’s be candid: Alexandria’s foot traffic is not where it could be. It’s not the same as other communities inside the beltway, where rents are significantly higher as a result of it. We know that the gross sales per square foot of retail businesses in Old Town does not match that of Georgetown or Capitol Hill, so the only way to really get a huge benefit out of opening a business here is to be tapped into the community that’s here, because our community is tighter and better and more diverse and more amazing than all those other places. If you’re not taking advantage of that community, then I guess I don’t think it’s worth being here.
If you just want to operate in a silo and not ever interact with the business associations, businesses around you or city hall, it’s going to be a pretty lonely ride full of fear and probably not very profitable.
ALXnow: Your business can’t stand alone on the strength of your products?
Romanetti: Right. Truly, the biggest draw that you have bringing in customers to Alexandria is selling them on Alexandria. None of us, no small business alone, is capable of bringing somebody from D.C. down the George Washington Parkway to come to Alexandria, but it’s worth it to them coming here to visit my business if they know that I have really great neighbors that they can go visit as well. It’s worth that drive.
You have to be tapped in, you have to explain to your customers or the people that you’re trying to get here that it’s worth the drive. There are amazing restaurants here. There are amazing other retailers here, there are adorable tree-lined streets with actual red brick town homes that have been here for hundreds of years. It’s authentic. There is an authentic vibe here that you don’t have in these other places. And so you’ve got to sell them on the entire experience of Alexandria. That’s always been my philosophy.
ALXnow: Who were your mentors?
Romanetti: I had a lot of mentors. One of the first business owners I met with when I was starting my business was Nora Partlow, who owned St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub. Her philosophy was the same. In Del Ray, bar crawls involve all of the businesses. It’s a community event. I was sort of raised by the Del Ray business community, and I’d been teaching knitting classes at St. Elmo’s, and Del Ray was initially where I wanted the business to be. I ended up in Old Town, but I was sort of raised by the Del Ray business community, and by folks like Nora Partlow and Pat Miller. We learn from each other and that’s how we become better business owners.
ALXnow: Are you ever going to expand to more locations?
Romanetti: I own this building. This was the goal — to own my building. So, I achieved what I was going for. I want to obviously continue to be involved and engaged in the local business community as much as possible, but I don’t want to replicate this business. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yarn shops don’t tend to have more than one location because they start to look like a franchise or a chain, which goes against the entire concept of your local yarn store, which is your small, independently owned yarn shop.
ALXnow: You’re a critic of the city government, but have a good relationship with public officials. How do you make that work?
Romanetti: I’m a giant pain in the butt to our mayor and our City Council, obviously. They love me because I’m actually participating, but when I need parking enforcement to show up to our block, you’re also going to hear from me, because I need them to do that work. I’m also one of the first business owners that they think of when they are thinking of actively engaged business owners, because I am willing to do the work.
ALXnow: Any other tips to business owners?
Romanetti: Stay informed. Even just being involved or engaged in what Visit Alexandria has going on, and reading AEDP’s monthly newsletter — those things can help. But really, I spent a good chunk of my 12 years just walking from my business up somewhere for lunch and stopping and talking to other business owners and making sure that I was connected with them. That’s how you get ideas for creative events, creative collaborations, or just inspiration, because you’re never doing everything well.
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