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Making It
Sisters open business with a personalized touch

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sisters Tara Leegan and Megan Hayes weren't kidding when they named their Old Town Alexandria business the Little Monogram Shop: The store is a tad less than eight feet wide. But the dimensions suit them perfectly, they say.

"We knew we wanted a small space to keep overhead low," says Megan, 42. "We have really full lives that take a lot of our time, so this is a manageable size." Adds Tara, 46: "I wouldn't want to go any bigger."

The store opened in October 2007 after Megan, whose former Navy speechwriting job brought her here 20 years ago, asked Tara, then a preschool teacher, to go into business with her. The sisters, who grew up on Long Island and in Chicago, had learned to sew together and had lived through the monogram craze of the '80s, so the idea "sort of harkened back to a good time," says Megan.

The business also "fills a huge void," says Tara, a Springfield resident who moved to the area 16 years ago because her husband was in the Navy. "It was hard to find anybody who could do this," agrees Megan. "So I thought: We should be able to do this."

"And we did," says Tara.

Megan and Tara visited monogram businesses elsewhere, took training classes and found a location, a tiny former consignment store off King Street, Old Town's main avenue. "It's kind of cute; and you have to play on the quaintness of the size of the space," says Megan, who lives about a mile away. But that was the easy part. The major challenge was that their business is unusual: There is labor involved in the products they sell, and transactions take longer than the average cash-and-carry sale.

Opening costs were $35,000, which were covered with savings, though their husbands did ask them to come up with a business plan to ensure that "it's not just two sisters messing around," Tara says, laughing. The shop is a true family enterprise: A third sister, who lives in Florida, works as the seamstress and is paid by the piece; Megan and Tara do the monogramming in the store's small back room.

The business didn't turn a profit in 2008, with sales of $100,000. But sales were up 17 percent for the first quarter of this year, a performance the sisters are happy with, considering the recession. They project a profitable year.

Megan and Tara, who draw occasional income of anywhere from $200 to $1,000 apiece, take turns running the shop, which is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Their schedules often revolve around Megan's children's sports events (Megan's four kids are ages 8 to 15; Tara's three are 18 to 25), and they have two part-time employees.

During the wedding-graduation and Christmas seasons, the store carries more than 5,000 items. This spring, couples' spa robes are a trend for wedding gifts, and toiletry bags are popular graduation items. Monogramming for items brought into the store starts at $18 and is based on the complexity of the design.

"The best thing is that unlike regular retail, you have to have a whole conversation with the person," says Megan. Shoppers range from preteen girls crazy about bags to grandmothers passing down heirlooms. "Traditions get brought in and shared," says Tara.

The sisters say they complement each other: "Megan is more hip, and I am more traditional," says Tara. And they agree that family comes first. For example, the sisters told their customers they would be closed on Mother's Day weekend because their parents were in town. "Really, we don't believe there can be too many monogramming emergencies," says Tara.

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