Posted by Jennifer McKnight on

So let me tell you a story of how Arizona Trading Co. started twenty-five years ago. 

I was twenty-two years old and majoring in art history at KU.  To make a long, sordid story short, my college funds were tied up in my parents' divorce, and I suddenly found myself with no money with which to continue my schooling.  I had moved to Lawrence via Kansas City from Tucson, Arizona a couple of years before, and had worked at used-clothing stores there.  I loved and became addicted to the idea of trading clothing and having a constantly-changing wardrobe while spending no money.

With my mom as my major investor--she offered her savings of $10,000, an absolute fortune to both of us at the time--I rented the space downtown at 734 Massachusetts, owned by the Malott family (who had run a hardware store in that space for the previous two generations).  Terry Malott, who managed the space, was openly skeptical of my idea and kept telling me I needed to sell furniture instead. 

Since I was still finishing up my semester at KU and couldn't open the store immediately, plus we didn't have any inventory, I decided to open the store just on weekends, specifically just to buy clothing.  I made hand-drawn fliers and posted them around town, and the response was unbelievable.  As the only buyer and generally the only person working, I bought all day long and was THRILLED that people bothered to respond to my flier.  Because we were trying to build inventory, we couldn't sell anything yet, so I just told people we didn't have a sales tax number yet and couldn't sell merchandise.  Which was true.  But it also gave people an idea of how much great stuff we would have to sell the second the store opened, so there was lots of incentive for them to come back.

In terms of the store itself, I didn't really decorate much--I didn't have the time or money enough, and it kind of seemed beside the point--I wanted to spend my resources on clothes, not décor.  My mom made the window sign at her office, and the buying counter came from the basement of King of Jeans (now Wa)--I don't remember at all how we made that deal, I only remember me and this poor King of Jeans employee carrying the counter, which weighed roughly 2,000 pounds, down the alley and up the stairs to the back door of the store, where we put it down and he promptly lit a cigarette.

And I get asked about our name all the time.  The answer is, after a 12-hour day of buying clothes, I was sitting with my mom at Free State, and we were trying to come up with a name.  She suggested Arizona Trading Co., since I had just moved from Arizona and we were going to be in the business of trading, and my exhausted brain just said, "Sure.  Great.  Love it."  There have been many, many times I've wanted to change it, but apparently it works so I've grown to accept it and love it because it sprang out of just wanting to get the store open, and I still remember exactly how that felt.

So December 7 marks the first day I started buying clothes.  I made it through that month--I will never forget walking down the sidewalk on campus, heading to my last final, thinking, "Don't pass out.  Just one more final.  Don't pass out."  After finals were over, I spent the break arranging and tagging clothing, hiring employees (their names were Kathy Maxwell and Tristan Lester, and they were awesome and I have no idea where they are now, I wish I did).  I celebrated New Year's Eve that year watching Sin City Disciples play the Bottleneck, then we officially opened January 2, 1992.  The first day we opened, there was a line out the door, and we made enough money to pay the first month's rent.

As for my mom, I paid off my loan to her within three months.  She continued to act as my accountant for a while, and continues to give me excellent business advice.  Without her support, opening the store would have been much more difficult, or wouldn't have happened at all.

Basically, the story of Arizona Trading Co. is a selfish one.  I desperately wanted a store in Lawrence like mine--not just for everyone else, but for myself!  I was thinking about me, just like any other twenty-two year old.  I wasn't even thinking six months down the road, let alone twenty-five years.  Having now had those years to explore the world, acquire a son, partner with the incomparable Venus Nichols, and having the challenges of business allow me to show myself how strong and savvy and resourceful I actually am, I am grateful beyond words to still have the business thriving and in my possession.  It is truly a calling--not just the porn-like allure of clothing I feel, but the true positive impact ATC has on the community and the relationships I've formed with twenty-five years' worth of employees and customers.  It's overwhelming to think of it.

Thank you for reading this, and thanks for helping bring us into our twenty-fifth year!



ps. please comment if you were in Lawrence around the time we opened --I would love to hear your memories/thoughts/impressions of us at that time!  I'm sure there are some real gems out there...




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