After a fire destroyed his business, Robert Grimmett thought he'd lost it all; with the help of his loyal customers, he's now ready for round two
Robert Grimmett turned 34 on a Saturday; by the following Tuesday, he had lost everything.
On April 15, 2014, Robert Mason Co., Grimmett's boutique pop-up stationery shop, open for just more than a year, was completely destroyed in a fire. The devastating blow should have sunk the young business, but Grimmett and a small-but-mighty team have sustained-and are ready to thrive again. With a new storefront in the works and game-changing business partnerships on the horizon, Grimmett believes Robert Mason Co. won't be restored; it will be reborn.
"[The fire] was more personal than most people think," Grimmett says over a beer at a Downtown bar. "Watching your baby almost get killed is traumatic. I was treated for PTSD; I still have recurring nightmares."
Robert Mason Co. was located inside Sugardaddy's Sumptuous Sweeties, the popular brownie shop also destroyed in the fire. A hit among Downtown workers in need of sophisticated office supplies (handmade leather laptop bags to adorable binders and chic notepads) or a last-minute birthday card, Robert Mason Co.-though relatively new to Columbus-had been a part of Grimmett's life since he was 12.
"I was doing design work [in my parents' basement], and I realized people needed supplies like binders to go with their order, so I decided to carry supplies," says Grimmett-a self-described old soul with a major appreciation for office supplies-of launching his career while still a kid. When officials from Grimmett's hometown of Ravenswood, W.Va., caught wind of his burgeoning business, he had to pitch to the city council to continue running the shop. "They actually ended up re-zoning my block," he says.
At 16, Grimmett moved his enterprise-at this point a mini Staples-into retail space he rented within another local business. When he outgrew that space, he decided to move into his own store.
"I eventually negotiated a space-at 16, which is illegal-and that became the store that is still there today," he says of the original Robert Mason Co. location. "It got too big for me to do by myself, so I hired my parents. My dad ended up leaving his job and my parents still own it today."
At 20, at the urging of a high-school art teacher, Grimmett decided to pursue art education and, to finance his tuition at the Art Institute of Chicago, he sold the business to his parents. And then, after 15 years spent honing his skills by designing in-store experiences for large corporations (including Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch and OfficeMax), Grimmett returned to the Robert Mason concept.
"Columbus was the most creative and open city I've ever lived in," he says. "Columbus embraces small business, and I knew I could make an impact here. It was very successful the first year, despite being such a young company. Then (the fire) happened. We were set back beyond square one."
The day after the building was extinguished, Grimmett refused to see the smoldering ashes. He hadn't just lost his business-he had lost 23 years of work. What he didn't expect was the outpouring of support received from customers who also felt they had lost something dear to them.
"People have an emotional connection with the brand that's hard for me to pinpoint," he says. "Customers set up two fundraising campaigns to pay my employees' salaries since they essentially lost their jobs that day. Our employees and customers are loyal to a fault. There were times when I wanted to just curl up and cry, but they wouldn't let me."
Despite struggling with insurance providers and the financial strain, Grimmett is confident Robert Mason Co.'s future is more promising than he originally imagined. He has partnered with a national fashion brand to carry Robert Mason Co. products exclusively on its ecommerce site (he says the announcement will be made this fall) and, more importantly for his brand vision, he says, he's signed a letter of intent for a storefront in the Short North. It should be open in time for the holiday rush.
"The store needs to be a brick-and-mortar business," Grimmett says. "So much of what we are comes from the experience. When you have a physical space, you tell a story. It's been 23 years of work-why would I give up now? This is part of our story."robertmasoncompany.com