NILES, Ohio – Had it been almost any other year, Tom Gober likely would have taken the advice of his marketing person and named his store “Splurge.”
Perhaps fortunately, the year was 2007.
“It was right in the middle of the recession and I thought, ‘That’s the last thing I want to do is tell somebody to come in and splurge,’“ he recalls.
As he pondered what to do, Gober looked to his right and found inspiration. “I had this little puppy sitting next to me and her name was Gracy so we named it after the dog,” he says.
So it was that Gober named his store Gracylane and opened it inside Eastwood Mall in Niles.
It turns out being able to change plans and adjust quickly would be key to Gober’s success.
Gober, who grew up in Leavittsburg, went to school to become a chemical engineer and began working at Delphi when he got the urge to try something different.
“Engineering wasn’t for me. I was bored with it and I always wanted a garden center,” he says.
So he left engineering and purchased Colonial Gardens in Vienna.
Soon he met Phyllis Cafaro, the founder of Captain McFinn and Friends, and the two spoke about his desire to convert the center to a Christmas theme for the holidays.
“Mrs. Cafaro kept telling me to put a store in the mall for Christmas,” Gober says.
“It worked out pretty good and she encouraged me to continue on and open a permanent store. That’s how it got started.”
Gober will soon celebrate his dog Gracy’s 16th birthday.
While Gracy remains one-of-a-kind, the store that bears her name now has three children.
In 2008, Gober opened a Gracylane in Boardman, followed by locations in Hudson and Erie, Pa., in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Today, Gracylane employs about 40 at its stores, which offer gifts and accessories, primarily for women.
“A lot of it was during the recession,” says Gober of the growth. “I didn’t really have a plan or a strategy. It’s just kind of how things worked out.”
Pat Schulman, who has worked at Gracylane since 2008 and manages the Niles store, is impressed with the growth, especially during tough economic times.
“It’s like, ‘wow’ moments,” she says. “We’ll be going along and then there will be another store and I go, ‘Wow.’”
Gober says being able to land several popular brands, such as Vera Bradley handbags, was a big help to the store early on. “They were looking for retailers in certain areas and there just happened to be an opportunity for me to go into those areas,” he says.
Another advantage he had was that he could follow trends and switch over the stores’ inventory much faster than a larger retailer.
Schulman says it’s a big reason customers keep coming back.
“You go a couple months later and the whole store could be different,” she says.
For the most part, each store has the same inventory though Gober says the Hudson and Boardman stores, which are the largest, will usually have a few more items than the Erie and Niles locations.
“We test some brands in those stores and if it really takes off, we make room in the other stores,” he says.
Recently, Gober had to pivot again to overcome hurdles brought forth by the pandemic.
The initial challenge came from the mandated closures of nonessential businesses, followed by the change in consumer habits when businesses did reopen.
“A lot of the stuff we sell, women buy because they’re going out, but when we opened back up people weren’t going anywhere,” he says.
To this day, Gober says customers’ shopping habits haven’t returned to prepandemic levels, resulting in his stores closing now at 7 p.m. instead of staying open until 9 p.m.
“We’re finding that people aren’t coming out that late anymore.”
Still, Gober says he and his staff stayed cautious, paid close attention to their inventory, hours, costs and “made it through.”
He’s happy to report sales are nearly back to prepandemic levels.
“The buzzword for us has been pivot, because it seems like it’s been something different every day and we just have to be able to pivot and change direction and get through it,” he says.
Most recently, the challenges result from uncertainties in the supply chain, Gober says.
As an example, he points to the store’s shopping bags. Typically, Gober places orders for the bags twice a year, but his most recent order has been stuck in limbo since last March.
He’s been placing smaller orders for replacement bags while remaining careful not to order too many lest his Gracylane bags do arrive.
“I’m placing orders about every three weeks,” he says.
“We almost laugh about it. You just have to keep a positive attitude and adjust.”
The supply chain may also play a role in how soon Gober is able to launch the next phase of Gracylane.
In spring 2020, Gober released Thommy, a line of sterling silver rings that are carried at all Gracylane locations.
He plans to begin selling the line wholesale to other retailers this July, although he may have to wait until January.
“Part of it depends on the supply chain because I need to be able to get the fixtures,” he says.
The Thommy line allows Gober to give back to the community, with a portion of the proceeds from eight of the rings benefitting local charities.
“This one is called ‘Feed,’ and it gives back to local food banks,” says Gober.
Another, called “Unconditional,” features paw prints and helps raise funds for local animal shelters.
“Even though the national charities are the ones bringing awareness, we’re trying to focus on the ones doing the work in our communities,” says Gober. Because, Gober says, it’s the community that has helped his business grow despite facing two major economic downturns.
“The customers have been fantastic,” he says.
“They know we’re a small business and they’ve been very supportive.”
Pictured: Tom Gober shows the Thommy line of rings. He donates part of the proceeds from sales of the rings to local charities.