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Heidi Says: 10 years on Fillmore

Photograph of Heidi Sabelhaus Myers by Susie Biehler

Heidi Sabelhaus Myers presides over a small retail empire of three women’s fashion boutiques on Fillmore Street that began as an online venture. As she prepared to celebrate her 10th anniversary, she paused to reflect on Steve Jobs, believing in destiny and a decade of retail on Fillmore Street.

It’s brave to own three retail shops on the same street. Did you have inspirations for your aspirations?

I worked with Steve Jobs on integrated marketing for Pixar and Apple. Ironically, that was before cellphones, so I had a pager for him. I was 23 and had to go home and review comps on Saturday night — sometimes a couple drinks in. He was an intense person. It was really inspiring to see how much he could press people to get them to do their very best. I also worked with some amazing and bright people at a dot-com early on called CKS Partners in Seattle. Our company went public before anyone else. I still remember the first check I got from that — for $7,000.

Did you spend it all in one place?

Many places, actually. After the dot-com ended, that money gave me the opportunity to travel for six months. Around then, a woman we had worked with died in a horrible accident. That was a life-changing time, and it really made me reflect on what I was doing with my life. I grabbed an old roommate who had always said she wanted to travel and we wrote down the countries we wanted to see: Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Egypt, Turkey, Greece. We ended by doing the Europe thing.

Sort of an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience?

Yes. When we came back, we were ready to save the world. But I went into online advertising instead — and it wasn’t quite the experience I had hoped for. That was during the dot-com craziness and I kept thinking it was time for me to get onboard. I had that feeling you have when you’re sick at home and feel like everyone else is out there doing something cool. So I started a little business of my own: HeidiSays.com.

Once you built it, did they come?

They did. And you have to remember the timing. It was 2000 — and there were only three or four legitimate fashion websites at the time. The boutique world was also in its infancy. Most people then were shopping in department stores. The new trend was designer boutiques, which were just starting to come up in the world.

Sounds like the right thing at the right time. But you’re not selling online now. Why is that?

After a year or so running the dot-comfrom Seattle, where office space was cheaper, I chose to come to San Francisco, where I had friends — including a boyfriend. And my passion was to open a small boutique. I had always envisioned that. I opened my first store on Fillmore, now HeidiSays Collections, in October 2001 — just a month after 9/11.

That timing thing again.

I’m a believer in destiny. People were shaken and unsure then — there was a general lack of confidence. But having a new store then was a bit of a distraction — something positive when people seemed to need it. Everyone was very welcoming, better than I expected. But after about a year, I found it too hard to keep up both the store, which was getting busier, and the website, too. I didn’t have the room to store the stock for it, or the time to market differently, so I stopped selling online.

How long before you got itchy to expand to another store?

I started looking around after three or four years. It just became too crowded in the shop. I was using every piece of space. On weekends, it looked like Loehmann’s — customers using the hallways and back office as dressing rooms. I kept asking the landlord: “Can’t we just bust down a wall?” I had a lot of shoes in stock, too. And I always loved the idea of a shoe store, so…

You opened HeidiSays Shoes, also on Fillmore, where the photo shop used to be?

Yes, in 2007. It was a good time — even though I was six months pregnant and my mom had just been diagnosed with cancer. In a way, I felt like having the new shoe store helped me stay focused and not get too heavy about everything. The economy was good then, too. It was so good, in fact, that when Yountville closed on Fillmore Street toward the end of that year, it seemed like the perfect place to expand again. Plenty of people were saying, “Don’t even go there.” But as an entrepreneur, you can’t help but get excited and want to grow when you get the opportunity. We opened HeidiSays Casual in February of 2008.

Wasn’t “casual” a departure from what you’d been doing?

The truth is that after having a baby, my own style became more casual. I can’t wear three-inch heels with a baby in my arms. And many of my customers were making the same changes. I noticed that the one or two racks of casual clothing I had in the store were turning over rapidly, so the casual store was a response to a demand. It’s important to give customers what they need, to listen to them and edit the merchandise and help make their lives easy. It’s too hard to go downtown to shop. Also, this city is full of women in their Lululemons. They need more options when they want to be stylish and casual.

Still, it must be impossible to ignore the economic problems that set in.

In 2008 — that was the year we felt it hardest. Even women who had money then felt guilty about carrying around a shopping bag. They had things shipped. I responded immediately by getting rid of unnecessary expenses — even the
watercooler. After getting through 2008, I feel like we really deserve to be here. But it’s important not to feel too proud; that would allow me to sit back instead of going forward. And if I just gave myself a Brownie button for surviving, my doors would be closed.

Are things better now?

Much better. I even brought the watercooler back this year. Now people seem ready and willing to treat themselves a little more. People are shopping again. In 10 years, I’ve had customers from all around the country — New York, L.A., lots of cities. For them, HeidiSays is a collection that works. They come in whenever they’re in town, and I love that. It gives me a sense of validation. The locals are my favorites, though. They’re what makes this city seem like a small town.

Any regrets?

No, I really still love the stores. And when I get to help people on the floor, then I know why I’m here. It’s so rewarding to help women dress for work, for special occasions. You can take someone who doesn’t feel confident or happy and help her find just the right clothes — and she leaves a changed woman, with a little spring in her step.

Any plans to expand again?

Right now, I have three stores and two kids. And like every woman, I’m trying to balance everything. I’m trying to run a successful business and be a good mom. But you never know.