The following oral history transcript is digitally recorded interview with Mary Roell. The interview took place on October 25, 2007 at Bedford Street Antiques in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The interview was conducted by Molly Osborn, an American Studies major at Dickinson College. The purpose of the interview is focused on her experiences as a female entrepreneur in Carlisle.
MOLLY OSBORN: Mary, how did you become involved in the antique business?
MARY ROELL: I started out when I was young. We started going to auctions because we didn’t have a lot of money. For entertainment, we went to auctions every weekend, or whenever we could, and just slowly started buying things. Started to buy furniture, refinish furniture, and just slowly got more into it. First, we’d buy things broken, then as time went on, we’d buy more things to replace things that were broken. And it just kind of grew. You buy better things to replace the old things, and that’s pretty much how we got started.
MOLLY OSBORN: Excellent. Then what motivated you to create Bedford Street Antiques?
MARY ROELL: Well, I was a manager. First of all, go way back, we moved here from Ohio in ’96. I was in the antique business back in Ohio; I did restoration and I was an antique dealer. But I restored oil paintings and refinished furniture and things for dealers, also. When we came out here, I decided to go back into the antique business and I started out in a shop that had a good history. It’s been there for a while over on Route 11-15. And someone approached me about running an antique shop in a mall. Originally, I had said, “I’m not interested in it. I’d like a part-time job, but I’m not interested. But I’ll help you find the place.” So, I helped a friend of mine find a location, which was over at Carlisle plaza at the time. They said, “Well, we want you to manage it.” I said, “No, I just want to work part-time.” But I ended up managing it, Albion Point over in Carlisle plaza mall. And I managed it for almost 5 years. I found out that that business was for sale. I wasn’t ready to give it up, and everybody kept saying to me, “You ought to do this yourself, you ought to do this yourself.” I came over here to an auction and talked to Charlie Spahrs, who was the original owner of the building. He had auctions once a year and I came to the auction, I think it was in 2000. It was 2001, and I fell in love with the building. It was just this big, old shell of a building. I fell in love with it. I said, “Can I come back and see your building?” He said, “Yes. Come again and I’ll show it to you.” So, I came back again a week later and he showed me the building. And I asked him if he’d be interested in selling it to me. And he said that we could talk about it.
So in the meantime, I had heard that the other shop was for sale, and it was going to go out of business. So, a friend of mine that worked for me, Arlene Decoster, connected me with Chris Gulotta. Because he worked for development, she said he would really be a big help and would be interested in helping me open my business. In 2002, I kind of mentioned it to Chris Gulotta, and he said, “Well, we can get together and talk about it.” And then, we really started working together in January 2003. I had found out just before that the mall had been sold.
So, I told him I wanted to buy this building. I was really interested in it. He said we needed to get a business plan together and talk about what we were going to do. So I was meeting with Chris Gulotta regularly and was getting ready to do all that. I came over and talked to Charlie about buying the building, and Charlie said, “I’m going out of town. When I come back from out of town, then we can talk about you purchasing the building.” In the meantime, I was still working with Chris Gulotta. He went out of town, came back, and someone had found out that the business was for sale and had come in with a realtor and left a deposit. When Charlie came back from being out of town, he called me up. He said, “I don’t know what to do.” He said, “This guy came and gave me a deposit for the building, so I took it. Did you still want the building?” I said, “Charlie, I told you I wanted the building. I wanted the building.” Well, I was crushed. So I continued talking to Chris Gulotta and I looked for another location. But in the meantime, I was just crushed because I had to have this building. You know when something feels right, it just felt right and I just had to have it. But, I continued looking for other buildings, and he went back and forth with this guy to put the down payment on the building. Finally, after about a month and a half, he called me and said, “I’m tired of dealing with this guy. Are you still interested?” I said, “YES! I’m still interested.” So I hurried up and came over and put a deposit down. Took the pictures back over to Chris Gulotta and re-did my business plan. Because, in the meantime, I had been over to the chocolate factory over in Mount Holly and looked at that building. My heart just wasn’t into it, ya know. My heart was here. It just felt right. It was here. So, I re-did my business plan, resubmitted the pictures that I had of this place and then we just went ahead with that. And then I had Chris Gulotta connect me with a bunch of different people that I needed to talk to about loans, help me with the paperwork, send it to the state, and things like that. And that’s how we got the ball rolling.
MOLLY OSBORN: Excellent. You covered most of the steps, but were there any other steps involved in obtaining the building, including the funding and community support, that was necessary to open your business?
MARY ROELL: Yes, there was a lot. Well, I had to convince the people that were giving me the funding, like a local bank, Orrstown Bank, and Community First Fund. It was another company that I went through that helps out small businesses and the state. I had to try to make them believe that the antique business was a real business. Because anytime anybody mentions antiques, they think it’s just a flea market or something like that, just junk. So, they pretty much thought it was just a glorified flea market. So, I had to convince them that it was a real business and I could make it work. And not only them, I had to convince the borough too. Did Chris Gulotta give you all of the funding that I received?
MOLLY OSBORN: Yes, he gave me most of the loans and the amounts.
MARY ROELL: I felt that managing a shop and being in business as long as I was and being a certified appraiser and all that, wasn’t enough. So in July, I decided that I needed to send letters to all of the dealers that I knew, both that were friends that were and weren’t in Albion Point, to see if they would even be interested in coming with me. So, I sent out 95 letters in July, and out of the 95 letters that I sent out, within 2 weeks, I got 75 responses from people that said that they would go with me. So, that was one big step because I copied all of the letters and I gave it to everybody that was willing to help me with financing. So, I gave them copies of the letters along with my business plan. And, then the people that used to work for me over at Albion, they came over and they helped me out, too. The people that are working with me now are the same people that I’ve had with me forever. They were such a big help to me. Then I had to convince the people in town and the borough. I had to let them know that the plan that I had was not only opening a business, but my plan was to bring people from out of town and send them downtown. So, not only was it bringing business to me, it was bringing business to them, too, because people who do antiques come from everywhere. I proved that to them because we’ve had people from Canada, we’ve had people from Japan in here, and we’ve had people in here who are setting up for movie sets. You know for movies that they’re filming around the area. And they buy props from us. So, I had to convince everybody that this was going to work.
MOLLY OSBORN: I remember you mentioning the three month, extensive process of cleaning and gutting the building, and that your family members were very helpful. What was your immediate family support system?
MARY ROELL: Well, first of all, it took me about five or six months to talk my husband into believing that this could be done because he was busy with his job. So, he was just afraid that it would be too much to handle because you’d have to understand, walking through this building, it was just a big, empty shell. It was a mess, it was waist high, full of stuff. So, my boys said whatever we can do, we’ll help, along with the people that worked for me. I have three sons. And my husband finally said, “You know, if you think you can do this. I’m behind you one hundred percent. I’ll do whatever I can.” He said, “I’m busy at work, so any of the meetings that you have to go to, you’re going to have to do the presentations yourself. I won’t be there all of the time to support you, but I’ll be there in your heart to support you.” So he said, “But whatever we can do, we’ll make it work.” The previous owner was so convinced that this was going to work that he gave us the keys three months before we ever even purchased the building. So, that allowed us to come in and clean it. It took us the whole three months to clean this building because it was waist high full of just stuff. Because he had flea markets and auctions and stuff in here, so it’s just stuff that had built up over the years. He had a flea market in the ‘90s, which his wife had accumulated all of this stuff. And then whatever was leftover from this auctions accumulated and it was here. So, he gave me the keys and we got in here and we worked from 7 o’clock in the morning until 11 at night for three months straight – straight through…
But anyway, we worked from 7 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night, just cleaning. The whole third floor and second floor were full of tables from the garment factory – big wooden tables that were used for cutting tables. And we didn’t really want to get rid of all of them. So, my son took the table tops off and there was some uneven flooring down on the first floor. He made a wide plank floor in one of the rooms, and my other sons helped paint, they helped put up walls, they helped just doing all kinds of stuff, cleaned floors. We mopped so much. You would not believe how much we mopped. And, we had trouble with contractors, but I mean, my kids were there the whole time to support and help me, with whatever I had to do.
MOLLY OSBORN: Do you think you would have been able to do it without their support?
MARY ROELL: No. Physically, I don’t think I could have done it. I mean, it was something that I wanted a lot, but without the support of my family and my friends, the people that work for me, I don’t think I could have ever done it. It was a lot of work.
MOLLY OSBORN: I can imagine. In recent years, Carlisle has seen many successful female enterprises. In your opinion, what has changed for that to happen? In the 1970s, they were very few, and now there are several in Carlisle.
MARY ROELL: Well, I think it was mainly a male dominated thing. They’re the ones that held the jobs, they’re the ones that were the breadwinners, and I think over time, things have changed. There have been a lot of women that are waiting longer to get married, more successful business women now, a lot of divorcees, which I hate to say. And a lot of women, a lot of people, have dreams and they’re more willing to take a chance. I think people, or their husbands, are more supportive now than they would have been back in the 70s and I think that’s a big help.
MOLLY OSBORN: Throughout the whole process, do you think your gender ever factored into it? Do you think the fact that you are a women ever helped or hindered that process?
MARY ROELL: I think it may have helped a lot. Now, I think it really did because Pennsylvania, and I don’t know how it is all over the United States, but Pennsylvania is big on women that are wanting to start their own business. I think it helped a lot.
MOLLY OSBORN: Do you see yourself as a role model for women who want to start their own business? I know that after Carly and I left, we were so empowered and impressed by what had happened. How do you view yourself as a role model? I think you are definitely a role model, at least for me.
MARY ROELL: Thank you.
MOLLY OSBORN: So how do you manage that?
MARY ROELL: Well, I hope I am a role model to people. I was used to being married and letting my husband make the decisions in everything. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I would ever have my own business like this and run it. I hope it empowers people, or women, and makes them believe that they can do things that they really have their hearts set on doing and taking that chance. I mean, I figure if I can do it, anybody can do it. And not just with this business, with any business, you know. If you have your heart set for it, I think you can do it. You just have to remember that it takes a lot of work.
MOLLY OSBORN: Then what changed with your relationship? You said that you always used to do things with your husband and then you decided to do your own business venture. What sparked you to do something on your own?
MARY ROELL: Just the belief that I could do it. It was something that needed to be done in this town. This was a building that was just falling to pieces and it needed some life to it. I think a lot of it has to do with the building and my willingness to want to work at it. It was like I couldn’t sleep, I kept thinking of this thing, I know I can do this and I know this can be done, and it’s going to be hard, but it can be done. Just that willpower to want to get something done and get it accomplished and how you feel after you do it. You know, I still walk up to the building and just kind of stand outside and look at it and say, “Wow, I just can’t believe this is mine.” I say, “I did it myself, I did it with help from other people, but I just never thought I’d be strong enough to do it. And I think a lot of women need to just sit down and look at the dreams that they’re writing down and just say, “Yes, maybe I can do it.” Hopefully that helps other people think that way.
MOLLY OSBORN: Is there a sense of community among the other female business owners in the area? Do you ever get together, or did you go to them for advice at all before you started this?
MARY ROELL: We all get together and talk every now and then. I’m friends with Ellen over at Hanover Street, Downtown Antiques Bard Werner… I’ve talked to other business owners and asked questions on how they got started. But with this, a lot of it was just kind of winging it. If I wouldn’t have had the experience from working over at Albion Point, I don’t think I would have gone into this. I probably would have eventually opened a smaller shop of my own, not a co-op. But running that taught me a lot. Taught me a lot on how to deal with people, with advertising, things like that, and payroll and things like that. So, I pretty much knew what I was getting into. And just talking to other business owners, it was just reassuring. So yes, I’m still in contact with all of them. They’re always willing to give you information, as I am to them. If anybody comes to ask me for information, I’m willing to help them in anyway I can.
MOLLY OSBORN: Well, obviously. You’re more than a help, but I think that’s perfect. Thank you.
MARY ROELL: Thank you.