If you’re a needlewoman, or man for that matter, often a single visit to Bainbridge Island’s Churchmouse Yarns & Teas and you’re hooked.
There’s just something about the atmosphere that draws knitters like, well, a needle to yarn.
“It’s not your usual yarn store,” said John Koval, co-owner of the business with wife Kit Hutchin. “The environment is full and inviting. But we believe people come back because of the degree of care by staff and the personal attention they receive whenever they are here. It can be a unique experience.”
A “Bainbridge experience” is the way Hutchin and Koval like to put it. The store, they are convinced, wouldn’t be in its 11th year of existence without being located in downtown Winslow. Conversely, the island has benefited by having Churchmouse become a “destination” store while being discreetly tucked away on Madrone Lane.
All of which has led to the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce recognizing them as the Business Couple of the Year for 2011.
“A lot of loyal locals have been coming here a long time and they have been very supportive,” Hutchin said. “We couldn’t do it without them. They are why we are here. But it’s a reality that margins are so tight these days that we need all the customers we can get, including those who just stumble upon on us. But it starts with our local support.”
Actually, it began when Hutchin, who is essentially Churchmouse’s brand while Koval is its online/wholesale purveyor, decided to leave her job as a copy director for Nordstrom to decide what to do with the rest of her work life. Her quest included many months of soul searching before she circled around to where she started.
“My family’s from Canada, and like most people I’ve been a fiber knitter all my life,” she said. “At least since I was 7 years old. It became clear to me that I had been preparing myself for this all those many years.”
Still, she didn’t make a move until she began thinking about “the reason why I should do it rather than why not. It became all about yarn and lifestyle.”
She had never owned or managed a business, but she is cautious and thorough by nature. Once she settled on a yarn and tea shop on the island there was no turning back.
“I did a lot of research and wrote a business plan, which was essential since we had to take out a loan,” she said. “I knew it had to be on Winslow Way for the locals and I knew the kind of store it would be.”
She worried at first about the large size of the space on Madrone Lane, but she quickly filled it up in her mind and Churchmouse Yarns & Teas became a reality.
When asked if she’s surprised by the shop’s success from the beginning, she pointed out that nothing has really changed inside of it.
“We built it slowly,” she said. “I’m very intentional and I believed we could make it work. It has been very gratifying, but I’m not surprised.”
The shop – and the people and the yarn that fill it – have always been her passion, which is why when the inevitable need for expansion occurred they turned more to a website-based wholesale business than expanding the current store or opening a second one elsewhere.
She knew that what had been created on Bainbridge could not be reciprocated elsewhere. So they expanded their pattern business by leasing two rooms in an adjacent building.
Hutchin remains the creative partner via the increasing number of patterns she has made in recent years. Koval’s marketing skills have grown the wholesale pattern business online since he came aboard full time in 2009.
When Churchmouse launched its patterns line they were moved primarily online, but Koval’s business development skills eventually led to sales to other yarn shops.
Churchmouse now has some 300 wholesale customers throughout the U.S., England, Canada and Australia. And many more to come, they believe.
Still, it all revolves around the Bainbridge shop.
“To me, the most satisfying and important part of our success are the relationships I’ve enjoyed with other women, knitters. It’s been fun and very satisfying,” she said.
Hutchin said she has never worried about the shop’s success because the environment and the service is an irresistible draw.
They enjoy telling stories about people who fly thousands of miles to Bainbridge just to experience another few hours in their shop.
Why Churchmouse? Obviously, they like being there.
“It’s Kit’s vision to have a shop that is calm, very calm, never excitable,” said Koval. “She knows knitters.”
Her job, and that of the shop’s 15 women employees, is to simply get knitters in the door. Once in the inner sanctum, most will eventually return.
“You have to be a successful knitter to work here because it’s our job to keep people going when they have a problem. We help them.”
And with that, they keep coming back for more.
Chamber banquet to fete business couple
Kit Hutchin and John Koval will be honored at the Business Couple of the Year Banquet Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. May 18 at Wing Point Golf and Country Club. The cost is $30 and the public is invited. Call 842-3700 or visit banbridgechamber.com to register.