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Portsmouth leaders try different approach to nurture small businesses, downtown retail

Candice Walker has been selling her Natural Rock’N hair care products online and at craft shows for years. Here, she sees them on a store shelf for the first time at Bloom Market. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
Candice Walker has been selling her Natural Rock’N hair care products online and at craft shows for years. Here, she sees them on a store shelf for the first time at Bloom Market. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

A new boutique is open on High Street in Portsmouth.

There are soaps, candles, baby clothes and jewelry on its shelves, all bearing the name of small local artisans.

The boutique is an effort by Portsmouth to boost local businesses and downtown retail from the ground up.

One row of hair products bears a bold logo with the words “Natural Rock'N.” 

It’s the first time Candice Walker has seen her hair oils and sprays on a store shelf.

“It's surreal, it's like is that for me? It doesn't feel real,” Walker said. “Because this is a huge step for our business and to see it presented so pretty.”

Walker was inspired more than a decade ago to develop products specifically geared toward curly hair, like hers. That was in 2012, before major brands pivoted to address the textured hair market. Walker felt like the haircare products she was cooking up in her home during her off hours could really go somewhere.

But her side business got sidelined, in large part because she lost the domain name for the brand, which took years to get back. When she finally did in 2019, it was a rebirth for her nascent company.

She redoubled her efforts and now she’s hoping the new boutique in downtown Portsmouth can help her get to the next level. 

The shop, called Bloom Market, is more than just another business. Portsmouth leaders hope it’ll be a place to nurture and grow the city’s small businesses and bolster downtown retail.

The market is run by the Portsmouth Partnership, a business-funded nonprofit that works with the city’s government to tackle economic problems.

The storefront was a Portsmouth Partnership coworking space during the pandemic. As Bloom Market, it will display the wares of 20 local artisans making everything from beauty products to baby clothes out of their garages and spare bedrooms.

Partnership president Michelle Wren says the goal is twofold. 

The first is to help grow local small businesses like Walker’s by getting their products in a store, in front of local customers, as well as training them to run a brick-and-mortar retail operation.

“Somebody who's making a product out of their home, they've got an online presence. They're already shelf ready, if you will. They've already got a brand around them. So we're trying to convert the clicks to bricks,” Wren said.

The hope is the exposure and knowledge is enough to let some of these brands branch out into their own locations to fill vacancies on High Street - of which Wren notes there are many.

Walking up the west end of High Street, at the entry to Portsmouth's downtown and past Bloom Market on a warm spring day, there’s not a ton of foot traffic early in the afternoon.

It’s hard not to notice that maybe one in three storefronts look empty — papered over, boarded up or otherwise dark.

Portsmouth Economic Development Director Brian Donahue says vacancy rates downtown are low and the area did well through the pandemic, but there has been some turnover.

“We have had some businesses exit the marketplace. And behind that we've seen new businesses come in with perhaps a different business line,” he said.

Donahue’s office is bankrolling Bloom Market for one year, to the tune of $85,000.

“Ultimately, we want to see these businesses grow into their own location. And that may not necessarily be a need for every vendor and retailer that's present in the space,” he said. “This is giving many of them an opportunity to test their … (brick-and-mortar) sales without having a tremendous commitment in terms of the expense associated with doing that.”

Wren, the Partnership president, said the new market is also a way to demonstrate alternative uses for retail space to landlords.

Retailers no longer need huge spaces, Wren said. Because so much of their business is online, they just need a small space to connect with clients.

“I feel like that commercial space needs to relook at their retail as well and reset their space and kind of come up with different leasing options for them and just be a little more creative,” she said.

It’s all in service of helping boost downtown Portsmouth’s economy as it weathers economic downturns, lingering pandemic effects and the continued impact of tolls.

Walker’s already envisioned quitting her day job as an EEG technician to work on Natural Rock'N full time. 

Driving down High Street, she’s had day dreams of moving her hair product laboratory out of her house and taking over one of the empty storefronts with a little hybrid shop/hair salon.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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