Revitalizing Rock Island, One Happy Customer at a Time

Black Hawk Student Enjoys Startup Success at ‘Good Karma’

Lindsay O’Brien knows a thing or two about time management. Part-time Black Hawk College student by morning, full-time storeowner of Good Karma Shirt Co. by day, the 21-year-old Moline native makes a beeline for her small business at the corner of 2 Avenue and 17 Street in downtown Rock Island as soon as class gets over for the day.

“Every day, I have my book bag and all of my homework down at the store,” says Ms. O’Brien from behind her cash register-slash-study space. “So, constantly when customers are coming in, I’m having to delegate my time between helping them, and when customers aren’t in, finishing up my homework.”

Some of the skills gleaned from that homework have proven invaluable to promoting her one-of-a-kind vintage clothing lines and repurposed retro fabrics as the collegiate clothier gets the word out about Good Karma, “a place for free spirits, wild hearts, funky clothes, and one of a kind style.” Proficient in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, thanks to a graphic design course taken at Black Hawk, Ms. O’Brien proudly keeps marketing duties in-house, helping not only to keep overheard costs low, but also empower the entrepreneur to assert her own creative vision before potential customers.

“If you go on my Facebook page for the store, you can really see how I’ve evolved through the past year-and-a-half from these classes because my first logo was just really, really awful,” confesses Ms. O’Brien with a laugh. “And then you get to our newest logo, and it’s like, Wow! It really does look professional.”

Whether through sharp logo design or viral word of mouth, shoppers have taken notice. Less than one year into business, the boutique has already amassed 2,595 Facebook likes and plenty of glowing reviews. “The store is just really unique and interesting!” wrote one satisfied customer. “The clothes take you back in time while still being trendy and current.”

“I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity to take the classes that can not only help me once I graduate but also can help me now while I’m starting to do this business,” says the sophomore O’Brien, who expects her spring semester business classes will come in handy around the store, as well.

The learning doesn’t stop in the classroom, though. The Shoppes on Second retail incubator, to which Good Karma and five other artisan craft shops belong, provide Ms. O’Brien and her fellow first-time shopkeepers with complimentary consulting services at professional seminars and workshops. Gleaning business know-how from tax specialists one month to marketing gurus the next, Ms. O’Brien and her artisanal neighbors find the program to be of great avail.

“It’s really nice to be able to have this free support system because they want to see us succeed,” says Ms. O’Brien about Renaissance Rock Island, the local nonprofit consortium overseeing the Shoppes in conjunction with the City of Rock Island, whose aldermen voted in 2011 to allocate $300,000 in tax increments to finance the incubator. Although each boutique is independently owned and operated, Ms. O’Brien knows they’re all in it together. “If the Shoppes on Second succeeds in here, the whole project succeeds.”

That project is part of a concerted effort by the city to redefine its Downtown Arts and Entertainment District—The District, for short—from the watering hole haven it is today to the retail destination of tomorrow. By providing subsidies that reduce rent below market value, city officials hope to attract startup ventures whose owners might otherwise shy away from opening shop in a slow-to-recover economy. While aldermen may have their sights set on expanding the city’s undersized sales tax base, the revitalization effort hits closer to home for the budding entrepreneur.

“When I heard the city’s idea for this retail spot, it immediately made me think of my grandma’s stories,” says Ms. O’Brien, who grew up listening to recollections of a downtown renowned for its daytrip excursions down boutique-dotted boulevards. “That was the thing to do, to come downtown to walk around with your friends, to shop. It was a really lively area, full of food and shopping and people just being out and about.”

That idyllic city center of yesteryear may stand as a far cry from the pub crawl jungle it is today, but Ms. O’Brien sees the advent of a second Golden Age well within reach for The District.

“I just think that with all of the new businesses coming in down here, this is soon to have a whole different feel. The foot traffic is going to increase and increase as they put more businesses that are community-centered rather than bars down here. It’s going to be a place where people come from out-of-town to walk around and shop, kind of like Galena.”

As the city attempts to revive its business image, Ms. O’Brien is embarking on her own quest to redefine American retail culture. Having worked in a chain department store, she grew weary of a status quo that prioritized cart-stuffing over customer-bonding.

“We need to have a connection with the people that we shop from. It shouldn’t just be a cold transaction. You work so hard for your money, you should feel good about where it’s going and what it’s doing after it leaves you.”

Good Karma customers can feel good about where their money goes, as the store allocates a portion of its profits to benefit local charities such as Davenport-based Dress for Success, which furnishes disadvantaged women with professional attire for job interviews.

Such a selfless business philosophy earned Ms. O’Brien a $2,500 grant from fraternal life insurance company Royal Neighbors of America, which will help her add a traveling component to her business with the purchase of a van. While Good Karma ventures out into uncharted territory, Ms. O’Brien plans to stay true to her founding principle of providing a comfortable atmosphere for all in which to shop.

“Working in retail, I noticed a lot of body shaming, and maybe it wasn’t on purpose, but when a young teenager or a girl who might not be the most secure in the first place walks into a store with models who are a size two, with people who are working there who ignore them…I mean, that’s not a good feeling. You’re already going through all this other stuff, and then to want to go get clothes and to not feel accepted or to feel bad about yourself—I wanted to change that, and I wanted to make a new kind of store, a store where girls would come in and they would see real-life models and they would see clothes that made them feel unique and one-of-a-kind.”

Among the outlet’s unique and one-of-a-kind winter arrivals are knit bell bottoms, a seasonal favorite combining the comfort of yoga pants with the warmth of knit fabric. Not to leave out the guys, the store now carries men’s winter apparel from illi Outerwear, the locally-based outfitter founded by Rock Island residents AJ Woeckener and Noah Lievens. Over half of Good Karma’s inventory is either handmade or vintage, with Ms. O’Brien personally contributing to the design of the boutique’s specialty brand of leggings.

Divulging the influences behind her eclectic tastes, she reminisces sbout back-to-school shopping with her mother who raised Ms. O’Brien as a single parent: “We didn’t have a lot—she was a waitress, she’s been a waitress my whole life—but she always just let me be exactly who I wanted to be, always encouraged me. Even at our worst of times when we were scraping pennies, we would go to the thrift store, and it would be back-to-school shopping.”

Money may have been in short supply, but improvisation flourished. “She would tell me to pick whatever I wanted: ‘You want to wear a 50s dress? Go get a 50s dress. Play with the clothes. You like this T-shirt, but it’s too small? Tie the sides. Create something with it,’” she recalls her mother as saying. “From a young age, I always had a love for these thrift stores and Good Wills and Salvation Armies, even though a lot of people growing up kind of looked down on thrift stores and wouldn’t want to go into one. I always saw it as, ‘This is like a treasure! I can create whatever I want in here and it’s just like Christmas.’”

Taking her thrift game to a whole new level, she now hits up estate sales across the Midwest, scrounging around for the latest hidden treasure. When she’s not looking for a come up, assisting customers, or studying for school, she can probably be found jamming out to “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore’s chart-topping, tag-popping single that vaulted hand-me-down culture to an unlikely place of prominence among the American mainstream.

“When that song came out, I was laughing so hard, I had tears coming down my eyes because this is my life!”