Uprooted

By Kevin Tankersley

Spice Village owner talks about the aftermath of last February’s winter storm

When Jennifer Wilson went to local banks for a loan about 25 years ago, she didn’t have much luck. She was still in college, for one thing, and no one was willing to take a chance, it seemed, on the idea of placing a store — a co-op of spaces to be rented out — on the second floor of a converted hardware store that had been built in 1908. But she persisted.

Perhaps it was her destiny, since she came from a family that had owned a hardware store in Marlin for decades. Wilson’s idea turned into Spice Village, which is now a shopping destination for many of the more than 1 million tourists who visit Waco each year. Out-of-towners frequent Wilson’s store so much that she had to revamp some of the inventory lines that Spice carried.

During Waco’s historic winter storm last February, a fire system sprinkler head on the third floor of Spice’s building froze and burst, sending water gushing into Spice as well as Cricket’s Drafthouse & Grill and The Olive Branch, both located on the ground floor. Wilson and her tenants moved into a space on Austin Avenue and were there for about 5 months while the building was being repaired. They have since returned to Spice’s original location, with a renovated layout and new hardwood floors.

WACOAN: How long have you been back in your space?

Wilson: We opened back up here on August 18 [2021]. So we were gone six months almost exactly.

WACOAN: That’s a long time.

Wilson: Yeah, to be displaced after that kind of craziness. But we were very lucky to be able to have another location to go to in the meantime and then move back in and open back up. We were really only closed about a month in the beginning and on the end, so not horrible.

WACOAN: What exactly were the issues that caused you to close?

Wilson: A sprinkler head on the third floor froze and busted. Gallons and gallons and gallons and gallons, probably even tons, of water came pouring down. And in a 100-year-old building, there’s nothing really between the second and the third floors. The water just seeped right through, flooded the entire 30,000 square feet here and then proceeded down to the first floor, flooding Cricket’s and Olive Branch and the space in between.

WACOAN: Did you come in that day and discover it, or did somebody call you?

Wilson: We were closed because the roads were shut down and everything was frozen. When the sprinkler goes off, that’s tied into the fire system, so [the fire department] got a call that there was an issue. And immediately we get a call, all of the tenants, saying that there’s a problem. Water was literally pouring down those stairs. It was like a waterfall coming down.

By the time all of us were able to get here — obviously, the roads were closed, I had to find someone to come get me that had a vehicle that could drive me down here. [I] walked into what was probably the worst day of my life, to be honest with you. To see 25 years of your business floating away, drowning, literally drowning. It was, it was a little crazy. It was a lot to take in those first few minutes.

WACOAN: How did you find the other location?

Wilson: When we assessed what all had taken place and realized that it was going to be a long process before we can open back up, I knew that we could not be shut down for six months. There was just no way. I’ve got 50-plus tenants and 20-something employees that I felt I was responsible for making sure that they were going to be taken care of.

Immediately, I started trying to get a plan together and calling people and trying to find a location that was going to be big enough to accommodate the size. I knew there was nothing that was going to be as big as what we were. But the space that was over on Austin Avenue, Gregg Glime and Will Phipps had it listed, and I contacted them. They were like, ‘Yep. We can do a short-term lease. We’ll do whatever. It’s move-in ready.’ So [it was] literally within six weeks of us being shut down here, completely packing up, moving out and moving back over there and being open back up.

WACOAN: How much space did you have?

Wilson: Over there, we only had 13,000 square feet, whereas here we have 30,000 square feet. I kind of joked that it was like we were taking an extra-large woman and putting her in a small pair of pants.

We made it work. Everybody had to downsize. So many of us had lost merchandise, we were just grateful to be able to open back up.

WACOAN: When you moved back, did you lose any tenants?

Wilson: There were two. We have one tenant, bless her heart, she’s 80-something years old. Her husband had died back during COVID. She’d been here for 20-plus years, so she was already rethinking how much more could she go. And this was like, ‘OK, I think it’s time.’ She was 84, I think.

Then Hole in the Roof, Congress Clothing had been here, and after COVID, the way things opened back up, they were trying to decide how they were going to restructure and do their wholesale business and not do retail. So this also was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna just do our wholesale.’ We still carry their products, Hole in the Roof, so we’re doing the wholesale from them. So we aren’t missing that product when we opened back up.

Then the other lady, another tenant just bought her out. So really, nothing left. It just changed hands.

WACOAN: Did you make any changes coming back?

Wilson: Yeah. So you know, 24 years of business, and being the way Spice had evolved over the years, there have been lots of things I wanted to change but never could. When you’re open pretty much 359 days a year, it’s hard to do little things. So I took this as a blessing in disguise and said, you know what, I get to reinvent the wheel.

Because the entire space had been gutted, because they had to put new floors in, all the walls came down. So I said, all right, this is perfect. I can redesign the layout of the store, make things a little bit more of a different flow. There were multiple tenants that were in here in different locations, just because over the years they’ve grown. So this gave us the opportunity to consolidate their spaces together.

It gave me the chance to redo the layout in a way that made the walkways bigger, so it was a little bit more user-friendly. And taking some of the spaces and modifying how they laid out actually gave the tenants a little bit more square footage. So it was a win-win for everyone. There’s less walkways, they’re just a little bit bigger, but then that gave us more square footage for merchandise.

WACOAN: I remember when Spice carried some really nice furniture. So how did that evolution happen over the years?

Wilson: You know, I think about it all the time, because people come in and say, ‘We loved the furniture.’ Everybody did. Times changed. Styles changed. People’s shopping habits changed.

We did a lot more higher-end furniture back then, as you may remember. It was a higher price point, and it was quality.

The shopper has changed over the years. It’s not necessarily quality that they’re into. It’s the fad, it’s the style. And if you can get it cheaper, because in three months the [style] is going to be something different and I didn’t pay a whole lot of money for it so I can get a new one. [That] kind of philosophy came along with home decor.

As that began to take place, around the same time the economy started to change. Back in 2010 is when we stopped doing [furniture]. And I miss doing it, because that was really where my passion was.

Also tourism took a little bit of a turn. Someone traveling here is not going to buy a $10,000 sofa. The need for us to go more towards products that they can take with them and less products that are going to be targeted towards local. We still have our locals, but tourists kind of took over, and you’ve got to be able to carry products that they can stick in their suitcase or in their car and take back home. Furniture is not one of those things. So multiple things played a factor in us going away from that.

WACOAN: What prompted you to rent this space 25 years ago? There wasn’t much going on in downtown at the time.

Wilson: I think we saw potential. I grew up in a small town that had a main street downtown feel, with shopping and things like that. But I had this vision of what this could be. The building was really what it was. It was the feel of this actual space. If it had been anywhere else, maybe it wouldn’t have been as attractive, or if the location and the look had been different, it wouldn’t be as attractive. But it literally was the combination.

We were a little ahead of our time because it did take us a couple of years before everybody else saw that downtown Waco is actually pretty cool. But I think it was just we saw the potential. And the space was perfect. It just had a vibe that spoke to us. We were like, this is where we’ve got to be. This is it.

WACOAN: When I was in college, a buddy of mine lived on the second floor of what’s now Truelove Bar and was paying $125 a month, and the building was for sale for $30,000.

Wilson: If we had known then what we know now. But it would have been a risk. And even us doing this. When we went to banks and pitched this idea, we got laughed at. Because No. 1, I was 23, so I was young and dumb. And downtown Waco was not where it was happening. So it was, ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’

WACOAN: What did you do before this?

Wilson: I was actually still in school [at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor] when I started this. I did not go to my college graduation because it was Baylor graduation the same day, so I had to work.

I was majoring in business and I had worked at a bank before, but that was not creative enough for me. My passion was the creative aspect of it.

WACOAN: Had you ever worked in anything like this before?

Wilson: Nope. I worked at Walmart. Does that count?

WACOAN: So what made you think at 23, when you’re applying for loans to start this, with a banking background, that you could do this?

Wilson: Like I said, I was young and dumb. I had always wanted to have my own business. When I was little, growing up, I used to put price tags on my mom’s furniture in her living room and play store. I mean, that was just always something I was into.

When all my other friends were playing school because they wanted to be teachers, I was playing store. There was just something about it. My great-grandparents owned a hardware store [Haak Lumber Co.] and were in the construction business, so I always found decorating and crafting and that kind of thing interesting.

WACOAN: Where did you grow up?

Wilson: Marlin.

WACOAN: When you opened this, looking 25 years down the road, did you have any idea that Spice would be what it is? That downtown would be what it is?

Wilson: Honestly, when I think back to then, I think it was literally just one day at a time. Let’s just get it open and see what happens. Over the years, obviously, it was a roller coaster, with just different changes in downtown, not taking off in the beginning and all of that. There were many times when I thought wow, how are we going to make it? But I think I’m stubborn and hard-headed, maybe just a little bit. I think I was more bound and determined to make it work than anything, just to be able to prove everybody wrong that said it wouldn’t make it.

WACOAN: How was business at your temporary place?

Wilson: It was good. It was a different vibe. It was kind of cool being on a first floor with a storefront facing a street. Because, obviously, we face a parking lot and we’re on the second floor, so that’s not anything that we were used to, being able to just prop the doors open and customers walking in and being right there on the street. So I enjoyed being on that level.

I think a lot of our local Waco people came to visit us just because it was a different feel. We got to see a lot more of our local customers that we don’t see as much down here just because they don’t like fighting the parking and all that kind of stuff. But it was good.

WACOAN: It can be a challenging parking lot.

Wilson: Very. And parking in downtown is a challenge.

WACOAN: What’s the hardest part about running Spice?

Wilson: Over the years, I probably would answer that question very differently.

I think that over the past year-and-a-half, the things that are going on in the world, going through a pandemic, and employees and the world just kind of being in the place that it is with the economy, that right now has been a struggle. I’ve never had an issue hiring people. So today, that’s my issue.

One of the things that probably has been the most consistent in 24 years is working with different types of people. I have anywhere from 20 to 30 employees, I average 50 tenants and hundreds of customers on a daily basis. And being able to accommodate every single one of those people [is difficult]. You’ve got different personalities with tenants, different ages and personalities with employees, and then you’ve got customers from all walks of life. So trying to create an atmosphere that’s going to accommodate every single one of them is a challenge.

It’s also a challenge to constantly have to stay on top of your game. Obviously with the way things have been in downtown Waco, I feel the pressure to constantly one-up something I did last year and make the shopping experience better than the last time the customer was here. For me, it’s just always having to be on my toes and making sure that we’re doing what’s the hot thing or having the cool product and just keeping the wow factor going.

WACOAN: You have competition in downtown —

Wilson: Which I didn’t always have. So now, because retail has grown, yes, you have competition. But I think for a lot of us, we complement each other. It’s not necessarily competition. We put out a shopping guide. It has a QR code that has every retail store in downtown Waco listed on it that we promote to our customers when they say, ‘Hey, where else do we go to shop?’ Scan this right here, pull it up on your phone and it’s all the other stores in downtown.

WACOAN: What’s the best part about running Spice?

Wilson: You know, 25 years later, I’m still very passionate about it. It’s exhausting some days and yes, it does get very stressful and it’s hard, but every day is different. You never know who you’re going to meet or what kind of person is going to come in.

I love still being able to be creative and do what I love and run a business. I get the opportunity to kind of wear both hats, and not many careers can offer that. I mean, yes, there’s the business side of it, but then there’s also the fun part of it. We have cool stuff and cute stuff, and you can be creative with whatever it is we’re building — displays or putting together ads that we’re working on and all that kind of stuff.

WACOAN: Do you have space here as well?

Wilson: I have five spaces that are mine. I carry our signature scent, which is our Spice Village signature scent candle line. And then I’ve got a Baylor section. I’ve got the Texas souvenirs section. I’ve got a gift section and then a purse section.

WACOAN: What does downtown Waco need?

Wilson: [Laughs.] Parking.

We kind of joke that we have 100 restaurants, but we never can find anything to eat. You get stuck doing the same thing over and over. And there are so many new things happening and taking place. I think Waco just needs time for people to get used to all the change, like the parking situation. So you may have to walk a little bit. Well, that’s not something we’re used to. We, as Wacoans, get accustomed to pulling up to the front door and running in somewhere. Well, we’re not in the same town that we were 20 years ago.

WACOAN: I’ve read where many places are having trouble finding workers. Have you faced that?

Wilson: It is a problem everywhere at the moment, finding employees, but as short-staffed as we are, we joke that it’s quality over quantity. I may not have a whole lot of workers, but the ones that I have are probably one of the best groups that I’ve had in a really long time. And they work hard. One girl can outwork two or three girls. It’s a good, good group of people that I have.

WACOAN: Are your employees mainly students?

Wilson: It’s a mixture. Most of them are students, because we are able to work around their schedules with their classes. But I still do have to have a couple of full-time workers that can fill in the gaps. We are hiring. We’re always hiring.

WACOAN: If I were to ask an employee, how is Jennifer as a boss, what would they say?

Wilson: They would probably tell you that I’m crazy, in a fun, good way. I expect a lot of them, but we have a good time while we’re doing it. They know what’s important, and they know what we have to get done.

They would probably tell you that I’m picky about the bathrooms because that is one of my biggest pet peeves, for the customers’ experience. I feel like that says a lot about a business.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Wilson: I just don’t want Waco to forget about us, and I don’t want Wacoans to forget about downtown and all there is to offer. I know I-35 construction and parking and all that are two things that you’re like, ‘I’m not going anywhere down there,’ but it’s so worth it. It’s so worth it.

If you’re going to drive somewhere else out of town to go shopping, you’re going to go through the construction and the traffic and the parking anyway, so why don’t you come experience this town? Because there is so much to offer.

I know a lot of our local people will come in here every so often and go, ‘Gosh, I haven’t been in here in years.’ And I’m like, why not? Why not? We’re here. Why are you not? It’s always changing and there’s something new going on, so why not keep coming back to see what that is? We have a lot to offer. And I know online shopping is huge, but we’re still a small business and you’re supporting local families.

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