For years, stay-at-home moms have traded lives in the professional world for the domestic responsibilities of children and household.
Now many Montgomery County women have found that stay-at-home businesses can offer a balance between careers and family. Such businesses give their owners something they couldn't find in corporate America: flexibility.
"We can stay at home with our kids but also work and have a job that allows us to be in the adult world," said Jill Sosin, 38, of Potomac, a former lawyer who is co-owner of Blue Elephants, which sells clothing for children.
"I needed the flexibility," said Kerry Iris, 45, co-owner of Whichcraft Galleries, based in Chevy Chase. "And my children like it, too. When I am in shows, I come home with clothes, presents that I need to buy. It's one-stop shopping."
Some of these entrepreneurs gathered recently for their twice-yearly shopping boutique in the Potomac Community Center's auditorium.
Customers pushing newfangled baby carriages and tending to crying toddlers mingled among the counters displaying scarves from France and trinkets from California, tie-dyed baby clothes and personalized blankets, cell-phone jewelry and radio pillows. Like the retailers, many of the shoppers were stay-at-home moms.
"I shop here because I like to support women who run their own businesses out of their home," said Amy Gross, 38, of Darnestown, who held her crying toddler while trying to make purchases.
"I like spending money at a small business rather than a big store at the mall," said Erin Boccia of Potomac, who was waiting for some colorful and fuzzy radio pillows to be tissue-papered and bagged at Barbie B, a Potomac business selling merchandise at the event.
"The typical suburban woman doesn't go down to Georgetown to the boutiques," said Barb Brody, 40, who, with her mother, Joyce Sachs, 65, of Bethesda, owns Barbie B. "Coming . . . to the shows saves them a trip to the mall, where they may not even find these trendy accessories. It's a convenience."
Brody, who said she burned out after years as director of public relations and fashion for Hecht's, said Barbie B took away the stress of being told where to be, when and for how long. "There were the pressures of travel . . . three or four days every month," she said. "It started to feel like I couldn't cope with it. There was too much anxiety. Finally my husband said find another job."
Aware that her friends had always commented on the merchandise she brought back from her New York trips, Brody decided to start a business in 2000.
Nearly 8,000 businesses in Montgomery County hold trader licenses allowing them to sell purchased merchandise, but the county does not differentiate between licenses for at-home retail and store-based retail. Brody estimated that the number of at-home retail stores in the county could exceed 200.
Many of the at-home retailers store their merchandise at home, and the commotion of their business has become part of their lives. The Brodys haven't done much living in their living room or dining in their dining room since Barbie B opened.
On a recent morning, Brody was rifling through piles of fall-friendly plaid wraps, colorful striped scarves and fur-fringed gloves that had just arrived from France.
The new merchandise, which Brody ordered during a New York buying trip in May, topped off her $30,000-plus fall inventory and filled every corner of her dining and living rooms and study.
The living room still had a coffee table, couch and two chairs, but wallets, small handbags and cell-phone jewelry had taken the place of books, knickknacks and magazines. Large bags in the browns and reds of the season, as well as scarves and gloves, adorned the chenille couch and matching club chairs.
Telephone orders from customers who are familiar with Brody's selection account for 40 percent of her business. The rest come by word of mouth or from customers who have seen her inventory at boutique shows such as the one at the Potomac Community Center.
"It's all about networking. It's all about visibility. The more I'm out, the more I'm visible," Brody said.
The Potomac show was started by a group of at-home retail business owners who, after years of going it alone, linked up and began to lean on one another for business advice as well as friendship.
Lisa Spaeth, 43, one of the original members of the group, started her hair accessories business with her mother, Froma Sandler, 68, eight years ago when she couldn't find barrettes and hair ties for her daughter. She started making her own barrettes and realized there was a demand when people started asking her where she got the cute hair ties her mother helped design.
"I know nothing about retail," Spaeth said, "but we sat at the kitchen table and came up with a plan."
A call from a friend got her into her first boutique show, and in 1997 her company made its first sales. "Years later, it's a big little business," Spaeth said of Bows Etc., which now employs a sales representative.
Sixty percent of Spaeth's business is wholesale. Her hair accessories can be found in Virginia, the District and Maryland. The rest of her business is retail sales at boutiques and from her home. She and her mother still design and make each hair ornament, but she has hired three employees to help with production.
Despite her success, Spaeth, whose children are now 16 and 8, still has the flexibility she originally sought. "Some days we work long hours, some days we don't work at all," she said.
Like Spaeth, Blue Elephants co-owner Ilene Steinberg, 37, of North Potomac started her company out of need. A transplanted New Yorker, Steinberg said she missed that city's boutiques. "I felt there was a void. I love shopping and I was focused on kids' clothes and I thought, where do people shop around here?"
With two young boys at home, Steinberg's curiosity led her to apply for a license to shop at the ENK children's show at the Javits Center in New York, an event where vendors show merchandise for the coming season.
After three visits, no purchases and lots of research over the course of almost two years, she opened Blue Elephants with Sosin a year ago.
"It's the perfect balance," Steinberg said of her finance background and her partner's legal know-how. "Eventually I want to open up an actual storefront."
But that will have to wait. She's expecting twins in December.