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Donna Chambers is trying to recapture that old entrepreneurial magic

The word “entrepreneur” evokes a sense of adventure, enthusiasm and magic.  But after awhile, even the most devoted small-business person can begin to burn out.

Over the past 13 years, Donna Chambers has grown two businesses in Westchester.  Though successful, she suddenly find herself at a crossroads, wondering how she can recapture some of the magic of being an entrepreneur.

Chambers, the owner and president of That Old Black Magic in White Plains, said lately it’s the little things that are getting to her.  “Some days it’s those little problems that a small-business person faces that are exhausting,” things like paperwork, staffing issues and business procedures.  Those nagging concerns are in addition to the usual worries every business owner has, such as increasing cash flow and holding down expenses.

It’s not that business isn’t good; That Old Black Magic, an ethnic gift shop on Mamaroneck Avenue, will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary.  And Donna Chambers Designs Inc., a fine jewelry design company, is nearly 13 years old.  Both companies have sustained steady growth: The jewelry business grossed more than $350,000 last year, and the gift shop had approximately $300,00 in gross sales.

Despite having a manager for each operation, Chambers said, “I’m constantly generating business, going to trade shows, doing paperwork and the normal maintenance” small businesses need.  There are days, she said, when she is so tired, “I feel as if I just want to close shop.”

Donna Chambers Designs grew out of a jewelry repair service Chambers and her late husband operated in Brooklyn.  According to Chambers, combining her creative ability and technical background allowed her to start the wholesale jewelry business.  Her collection of designs, which employ 14 karat gold and pearls, have been featured at Bloomingdale’s, Fortunoff’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as in exclusive jewelry chains nationwide.

But “The jewelry business had been changing over the years,” she said, “and it started taking a turn downward.  Consumers didn’t have as much disposable income” as they had in previous years.  That meant working twice as hard to maintain her sales volume, while continuing to design new pieces.

  In response to the change in customers’ spending habits, Chambers said she decided to do something a little different to keep her employees working.  In 1990 she started a mail order endeavor, eventually producing five different catalogs of ethnic art, gifts and collectibles.  That also was the year she decided to invest $25,000 of her savings in That Old Black Magic.

Like most retail operations, she said, “The store is very seasonal.  The busiest time is from  November through December.  After that, there really isn’t anything you can count on, other than Mother’s Day, so you really have to capitalize on the holiday season.” 

To maximize sales during that period, for the past three years Chambers has rented a cart in The Galleria in White Plains.  “I have a very specialized product that’s not sold in the malls.  The cart cost me $10,000 to rent for the two months, but it’s generated sales of over $50,000.”

Chambers also has sold jewelry at fine craft shows, and expanded the reach of the gift shop to include book signings and community cultural events, all in an effort to sustain sales and her success.  “As a business person you have to have an open mind, allow things to come in to it, and leave yourself with options.  You can’t do just one things,” said Chambers.

“You have to diversify to keep your business growing and going.  Sometimes I think the answer for me is to go seasonal.  Maybe I should take two or three carts in different malls throughout the area.

“But I don’t have time to settle on one option.  I’d like to see myself grow creatively, to be appreciated as an artist.  I’ve got to do something to put the spark back in it.

“You’re always sure you can fail, but never sure you can succeed.  I’m just tired of working so hard.”  Yet when asked if she’d give up her businesses, Chambers responded, “No.  What else would I do after 15 years in business for myself?”

Westchester County Business Journal August 14, 1995

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