Q&A: Robert Grimmett of boutique office and art supplier Robert Mason Co.

By Columbus Alive
From the May 16, 2013 edition
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston

Robert Grimmett has been a successful businessman since before he could get into a PG-13 movie. At 12, he began offering graphic design services and selling office supplies in his hometown of Ravenswood, West Virginia. By the time he was 16, his business opened its first retail store, and Grimmett hired his parents to run it. Eventually he sold that store to his parents and headed off to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Now, Grimmett has a pop-up boutique, Robert Mason Co., inside Sugardaddy’s on Gay Street that offers thousands of office, school and art supplies, stationary, copy and custom print services, vintage-inspired accessories and home goods designed by Grimmett himself — all within a 208-square-foot space. And Grimmett isn’t done yet. He plans to open a larger store in the next year near CCAD.

I started [Robert Mason Co.] 20 years ago when I was 12. I started selling design skills out of my parents’ basement. I was just doing things like picking up mayoral campaigns and doing flyers. I started to think, “What would you also need if you were coming to pick up print services?” It was office supplies, just the basics.

When I was 14, the city found out and told my parents I didn’t have a [business] license, wasn’t paying taxes and I was in a residential area. The scariest thing I’ve ever had to do — still to this day — was to pitch the business in front of city council. They rezoned my street and issued a business license. I still have that license and keep it as my inspiration. That only lit the fire under my butt to take it even further.

There was a building in [Ravenswood] that … I asked if I could have a space in. Ironically, it’s happening again 20 years later. Sales exponentially grew out of that location to where I needed to find more space. By the time I was 16, I had a shop, and it’s still there today. When I was a junior in high school, we passed $100,000 annual sales so I ended up hiring my mom to assist in this venture. [Then] I hired my dad. My parents left their careers, and we became a family business.

My dream was to go to art school, and this business was there to fund that. It took until I was about 20 years old, but then my parents bought me out. They still own and run the West Virginia store. I never let control of the brand away because it’s my name. I always controlled all of the marketing and did that as a side thing.

When I moved to Chicago, I made it my goal to work for all of the retailers that would eventually be my competition to learn all their tips and tricks. So I worked for Abercrombie & Fitch, Bath & Body Works, Pizzeria Uno, Bombay & Co. for a number of years and Office Max corporate for two years. All the while, I knew the day was coming where I’d re-enter the business. I just needed to get everything under my belt.

The [pop-up] idea came through … thinking the brand needed to be present before we open the big store. I thought I could combat some of that “What’s Robert Mason? What is this store?” and get this open to let people experience the brand. That really turned into, “What is the bodega of Robert Mason? What is the cool offering? What could we test and play with?” That’s why I work open to close everyday — this is all a test. I’m learning from everyone’s comments, what people are buying and what should go in the big store.

[Robert Mason Co.] is a shopkeeper service from the past. It’s also that we won’t say no. We’re going to figure it out. Service is as equally important as quality.