Nothing ever succeeds which exuberant spirits have not helped to produce.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, poet, and composer
When Heidi Werner and her two business partners opened up Lava 9 (542 Hayes Avenue, 415.552.6468) in San Francisco in 1991, the impoverished Hayes Valley neighborhood was years away from being gentrified. The economy was down; yet, Werner pointed out, “It [the recession] always opens up opportunities, too.” Driven by youthful exuberance and cheerful indifference of economic conditions, Werner said of that time, “You just go for it!”
Werner knew the owners of Nomads on the block and was drawn to the diverse and eclectic vibe of the neighborhood. The rent was low and the storefronts were small, blank slates, which enticed not only Lava 9 to lay down stakes but other young entrepreneurs, as well. “We created that neighborhood,” Werner said. Nomads, Zonal, and Lava 9 are the original three shops from the early days that are still standing.
One of her partners, a jewelry designer, already owned a store called Volcano, which figured into the name of their new store. The three of them randomly added the “9” because Lava was too short and the number 9 “sounded good.” The other two women were jewelry designers, while Werner was a leather artisan, creating mostly jackets and bags. Conceived of as a gallery, Lava 9 comprised a showroom for their leather and metal wares and a stage that served as their workshops. They sold their creations and soon afterwards carried other wares, most of which were handmade and selected on Werner’s buying trips.
A True entrepreneurial spirit
Werner supplemented her income by working at another leather store, but quit when her business partner called one day to inform her that someone had stolen five of her leather jackets. Convinced the theft wouldn’t have occurred on her watch, Werner told herself, “That’s it!” The spontaneous decision to quit and put all of her energies into the store did not rest on whether or not she could do it financially. “It was the true entrepreneurial spirit,” Werner said, of the drive that sprang forth from her. She had told herself back then that it had to work. “And it did!” she exclaimed. When funds were low, Werner would sell two leather jackets the day before rent was due. “Things just worked out,” she said, simply.
One partner dropped out after three months, and the other left before the end of the first year after creative differences. Although the partnership didn’t work out, starting a business with others gave her a sense of security and “more power to do it.” When they left, she carried on without hesitation. “I was fine – I was the most determined,” she said, of the business venture and the solo effort. To this day, Werner, now 54, still subscribes to the philosophy of “Just do it” and not get too caught up with issues. At the same time, she has been frugal from a business perspective. “That’s what helped me through the downturns,” she explained. Just as important, Werner invested in a lot of sweat equity. “Hard work pays off,” she said.
A Passion for sewing
When Werner was a girl in Germany, her mother enrolled her in a sewing class, which sparked her passion for sewing and led to her taking design and pattern-making classes. As a teenager, she often designed and sewed outfits a few hours before going to parties. Although she earned her degree in special education, when Werner came to the U.S., seeking adventure, she turned to making small leather goods, which she sold at small venues such as the Haight Street Fair and other neighborhood street fairs. It often took weeks to craft a leather jacket because of the custom work – Werner would make the pattern, buy the leather and findings, and then sew the garment. She eventually hired a pattern maker and tailor. She still designs some bags, which are made by her tailor.
The Rise of Lava 9 in Berkeley
Werner opened up her Berkeley shop (1797 Solano Avenue, 510.528.5336) more than four years ago at the former location of Soap Sistahs after a experiencing a midlife crisis. At that time, she wanted to do something different and had designs on becoming a dog trainer (Werner has rescue dogs). But when she heard that the owner was closing the soap store and retiring to Mexico – a scenario that also greatly appealed to her – Werner decided to convert the storefront into the second Lava 9. The new location was ideal because Werner lives in Berkeley, but more importantly, designing and setting up the compact, rectangular-shaped store renewed her passion.
Although there is some crossover, the two cities boast different clientele, which means Werner must offer different products at each store. The Hayes Valley client is younger with more disposable income, whereas the Berkeley clientele is older. Interestingly, some of the Berkeley clients used to live in the Hayes Valley neighborhood but are now mothers whose kids attend the local school around the corner from Solano Avenue. For them, finding one of their favorite San Francisco stores in the East Bay is a pleasant surprise.
While many designers come to her to show their wares, Werner actively searches for solo artisans, both local and European, whose works are unique, eclectic, and multi-dimensional. One of her biggest challenges is offering something that isn’t carried by another local store. “It’s an ongoing struggle to be different,” she said. In addition to offering unique products, her philosophy is to be able to sell something to everybody – from 14-year-old girls to 86-year-old grandmothers. Thus, Lava 9 carries wares ranging in price from $15 headbands to $4,000 rings. While the handful of economic downturns through the years has led her to introduce more affordable items, her aesthetics and her customer service have created a large and loyal customer base. As an added personal touch and a Lava 9 trademark, purchases are carefully wrapped in high-end designer fabric – scraps supplied by a friend who works in the industry – and tied with festive ribbons.
Werner and her staff spend a lot of time with their customers, providing a personal shopping experience not found in most retail clothing stores. Managing the business and running between the two stores takes her away from making it an everyday experience, but the customer interaction is the thing that always draws her back and reminds her why she is still in business. “I love the people; I love all my customers,” she exclaimed, after helping one woman find the ideal belt and short trench, and another choose between two embellished scarves. Indeed, if you’ve ever been to Lava 9 and leisurely browsed through the collections of purses, scarves, belts, clothing, and, of course, jewelry, you can always expect a smile and being drawn into a friendly conversation.