Starting your own small business is not for the faint of heart in the best of times. Opening a store whose mission engages with multiple global challenges during a still-ongoing pandemic driving major supply chain snafus and other trials for brick-and-mortars? Erica Bouchard Rabins laughed. “Maybe a little crazy,” she said.
Yet the longtime Lexingtonian is finding success in her first month running Center Goods, a store she opened on Waltham Street stocked with environmentally friendly, fair-trade products and refill supplies for items like soap and shampoo to reduce waste.
In her plant-dotted, beige-wood themed shop, Bouchard Rabins works hard to make small acts of sustainability easier by offering consolidated products and guidance. Like refill stores elsewhere, she approaches the overwhelming problem of waste on the most granular level, breaking it down to a single tube of toothpaste, stick of deodorant or bottle of soap. For instance, if you were to start bringing a reusable jar or container for hand soap and refilling it regularly from the unpackaged bulk supply at her store, theoretically, you’d never need to buy – or throw away – another plastic soap bottle again.
Refills are a popular concept around the world, Bouchard Rabins noted. As a nation, “we’re a little late to the game, but we’re getting there.” She hopes that eventually, “every community [will have] their own refill store.”
Center Goods has already made a small dent townwide, according to her early stats. “In the first month we’ve already diverted 207 plastic bottles from the waste stream through refilling,” she wrote in a follow-up email Thursday. “Exciting to think about how that number could grow!”
But refills are only part of Center Goods’ offerings. Bouchard Rabins wanted to sell sustainably sourced handcrafted products, too – with the hope that the more products she carried, the more people she could draw into sustainability conversations and practices. “It’s not a one-size-fits all solution,” she said. “My hope was that by offering a bigger variety, I could appeal to more people… not just the diehards.” She wants to bring people into the fold and “introduce them to products that maybe they weren’t aware of.”
So far, that strategy seems to be working. Bouchard Rabins has had older customers approach her for advice: They ask, “‘where do I start?…I can’t stand the waste, and I just don’t know what else to use besides plastic wrap.’”
“It’s a conversation,” she said. “The information is changing all the time, and it’s hard to keep up.” In addition to helping customers stay informed in a deluge of perpetual updates, Bouchard Rabins can offer tips and encouragement about doing small things differently: “You’ve been reaching for that paper towel your whole life, and you can change that habit; it just takes time.”
She’s seeing interest from customers in refills and handmade goods alike. Sustainably made tea towels from a small business in Maine have been one popular item; so has deodorant cream in a glass jar, as well as basics like reusable straws.
Some products for children have been sought after, too – especially fairy house kits made by a Lexington family. Bouchard Rabins offers several other local goods – including Middle River soap, Mandy Warhol cards and Kaolin Beauty products from the sustainable makeup company founded by an LHS graduate. The soap maker soon plans to sell Ukrainian flag soap to raise funds for refugees.
Customer enthusiasm for a range of products has brought her joy. “That’s been really fun, to see that…many of us really are on sort of the same page thinking about this,” she said. “One of my hopes is that when you come here, you know that I’ve done the research so that you don’t have to, and that you can feel comfortable buying anything in here knowing that it is sustainable and eco-friendly and made by good people.”
She understands that in the long run, “it’s only helpful if it’s convenient.”
Bouchard Rabins doesn’t have any illusions about Center Goods single-handedly saving the climate; “I’m not kidding myself, I don’t think that refilling my shampoo bottle is going to solve the problem.” On the other hand, she feels local action is, in some sense, the only option. “I think we’re all feeling fed up with the concept that change is going to come from the top down….as a community, we can sort of create the political will that could really lead to big changes.”
She’s also conscious that a store like Center Goods requires privilege both to establish and patronize. “Finding a combination, or trying out different products, and then seeing what works for you or your family – that takes a little bit of time, it takes a little bit of money,” she said. “But…I think in this community, we have a lot of privilege, and I think we’re a perfect community to really push ourselves further and use that privilege.”
With this privilege on her mind, Bouchard Rabins folded two other practices into Center Goods: Featuring products from businesses owned by members of marginalized communities, and donating some store proceeds to nonprofit organizations. “Supporting [marginalized makers’] businesses in the green space is an important thing to do, because often they get pushed out as sort of not being part of the big picture of talking about climate change,” she said.
In some ways, these actions align closely with a previous project for Bouchard Rabins: several years ago, she founded a website for fair-trade products. Then, and now, “it really matters to me who’s making it, and how they’re making it, and why they’re making it.”
As she researched fair-trade products, she could not help but become more informed about sustainability issues. “I started becoming more aware of…particularly how some of these communities are more impacted by climate change and having to adapt their handicrafts… It’s a whole spider web.”
Bouchard Rabins has been thinking about creating Center Goods for a couple of years, but began to consider it more seriously in the last year. Talking to some local sustainability groups helped convince her that “there’s a community big enough that having a local resource would be desirable and be helpful.” She also spoke with retail owners such as Cleenland’s Sarah Levy.
In her early vision for Center Goods, Bouchard Rabins imagined an online store, like her previous project – and started out that way. But she realized a retail store could give dialogue about sustainability a personal warmth and support online transactions could never match, creating “a space where people can learn from each other, support each other, talk about sustainability efforts.” And, a retail store could make refills easier for customers than delivery or pickup models because they could more easily and independently customize how much of a product they want.
“I’ve seen a big benefit to being able to touch [goods] and look at them and ask a question that’s really specific about [them]…when you go online, it can be almost impossible to figure out what you would possibly start with,” she said. “It’s also energizing when you’re around other people who are thinking about this – because it can be so discouraging [when] you’re sort of in your own bubble.”
Bouchard Rabins took the leap to open Center Goods in part because the right physical space opened up. She has the same Lexington-based landlord as nearby Anisoptera Mercantile, which opened last fall; he has been “wonderful,” she said. “He seemed invested in an interesting addition to the Center.”
The Waltham Street location felt ideal to her for a business she envisioned as “a community store, not so much a tourist store” – with its increased access to parking and side streets compared to Mass Ave. Between Omar’s, Anisoptera, Maxima Book Center, and CoCo Fresh Tea and Juice, which have all opened in her general vicinity in the Town Center in the past several months, “as a Lexington resident, I got kind of excited about being part of the new wave of more sort of community-minded stores,” she said.
Still, it wasn’t a no-brainer to open Center Goods. On the contrary, “I didn’t sleep for six months,” she said, thinking over whether this was a risk she and her family could take. “We decided that it was… This is not a get-rich business; this is trying to work as a community to make a change that I think we can do.”
Bouchard Rabins has certainly felt the pandemic’s impacts on her opening: In particular, “the supply chain issues are real,” she emphasized. While she technically opened Center Goods April 27, “the more official opening was May 11 when the sign was installed,” she wrote in a follow-up email. Bouchard Rabins has also had a lot of trouble getting furniture and “anything made of metal or wood,” and it continues to be challenging to restock whenever something sells out.
But now, Bouchard Rabins has a sign, and has been open long enough to sell customers goods for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, even though she didn’t originally expect gifts to be popular. “People were giving their moms laundry detergent!” she said. “They were like, she will love this – it’s useful; it’s sustainable; and she’s excited about that.”
Looking ahead, Bouchard Rabins hopes her space can eventually also be used to host events about sustainability and pop-ups for local makers. She welcomes suggestions online and in-person for future products and collaborations.
“I’m no expert,” Bouchard Rabins said. “I’m just a mom who’s doing the best she can, learning as I go, and just feeling like I’d rather do something than nothing.”
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