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Omaha Magazine

Making It Work: Three Local Businesses Thriving in Omaha

Oct 01, 2021 03:21PM ● By Ryan Borchers
Brittny Escamilla and DaRonn Washington in Book Nook Bookstore

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Many small businesses in the Omaha metro area have gotten creative over the last year and a half. Some of these ventures discovered their new modes of industry enabled them to thrive. 

Keighley Harrison and Branda Blundell are hair stylists and best friends who own and operate Good Life Grooming, a mobile hair salon for men they run out of a renovated camper. The two worked in traditional salons after graduating from beauty school, but like so many others, the pandemic paused their work.

“We had some cocktails when we were shut down over COVID, and we kind of, were just, tossing around ideas,” Blundell said. They had seen videos about out-of-state mobile businesses, and the more they talked about it, the more serious they became about the idea of opening a mobile hair salon together. “It became more and more apparent that this might be actually the time to try something really crazy like this.”

Harrison and Blundell opened for business in December 2020, but doing so required a major leap of faith, especially in a time when haircuts were often held up as an example of nonessential services.

“We just didn’t know, are people going to come back and get their hair cut, how soon is that going to happen, are people afraid, are they over it?” Harrison said. “All that was just a big unknown.”

The demand has been there. Larger groups, Harrison and Blundell said, are surprised at how spacious the camper is. Services such as beard grooming, and nose and eyebrow waxing, are especially popular. The duo has put together a brand across various stops in the metro area.

“They come in and they’ve just been rooting for us, since the beginning,” Blundell said. “All of those small businesses that just saw us randomly here and there, and they want to come in because they’re a small business owner, too. I feel like it’s really cool to connect to this other side of the community that we didn’t really know before.”

Community support also is key to the success of Dundee Book Co., for which husband-and-wife team Ted and Nicole Wheeler opened a physical location in the Dundee neighborhood last March. The company started in 2017 as a pop-up book cart the Wheelers brought to various events around Omaha, such as pub quizzes, authors’ readings, and theater productions.

That experience, Ted said, showed them the appeal of displaying a smaller number of books. That strategy has been carried over to the new store, which features a limited selection of curated books.

“When you have that personal touch and you can explain why a book is good, and especially books that people haven’t ever heard of before and why they might like it, that’s what gives us our advantage,” he said.

Opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore made sense in 2020 because, Nicole said, for much of the year there were no public events where they could
sell books.

“E-commerce couldn’t really be a significant part of the business because we weren’t warehousing a bunch of books in our living room,” Nicole said.

The store is itself a house and looks like one on the outside. Part of the appeal of the book cart, which now lives in the store as a shelf for merchandise, was finding books in unexpected places. Curiosity draws many customers inside, as does the simple fact people enjoy seeing a bookstore in the neighborhood and want to support it. The Wheelers also host a popular monthly Backyard Reading Series in the store’s backyard for patrons enrolled in Dundee Book Co.’s membership program.

“We’re able to partner with businesses in the neighborhood and to get people discounts on things,” Nicole said, such as wine from Mark’s Pantry & Bottle Shop. “It’s nice where everybody feels like, ‘Oh, this is a thing that’s happening with everybody in Dundee.’ ”

“Before this year, I never would have dreamt that it would be a problem that too many people wanted to come to the poetry reading,” Ted said.

Capitalizing on community support is also the goal for the Book Nook in Papillion. Owner DaRonn Washington refers to his store, which opened its Papillion location in October 2020, as a “social project” in the community.

“For any small business, local business, it can’t just be to sell things to people,” Washington said. “It also has to be something that…brings benefit to the community, and the community has to adopt it.” 

Washington has sold books online for about nine years, though he and his girlfriend, Brittny Escamilla, always intended to open a brick-and-mortar location.

“I like to call it 600-square-feet of fun,” Washington said. The store is, in fact, 600 square feet in area and contains about 7,000 units of merchandise, including items such as Funko Pops, board games, and collectibles. Washington and Escamilla also still sell online, warehousing over 25,000 items.

Washington attributes the Book Nook’s success in part to their prior experience selling books, but that’s not the only reason.

“I like to say that we are good at what we do, but we’re not that good,” he said. “We just happen to be lucky to enter into a really good community. The Papillion community is incredible.” Local residents have embraced the store. Anyone can readily buy books online, Washington said, but creating a “neighborhood bookstore” and building relationships with customers is what makes the venture special.

“I really think that during this time, with the pandemic, that there are a lot of good businesses out there, mom-and-pop businesses, independent businesses,” he said.

Visit booknookbookstores.comdundee-book-company.square.site, and goodlifegroomingformen.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.