- By Tamara Ikenberg
Conventional business wisdom usually says that going into business with your best pal is a surefire way to torch both the relationship and the business.
But the story behind Fire Mountain Fabrics, the first Native-owned fabric store in Minnesota’s northwest suburbs, throws water on that theory.
The shop, which opened this past weekend, is co-owned by best friends Arlene Fairbanks (Diné) and Jessica Travis (Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux), two entrepreneurs successfully mixing commerce and camaraderie.
“We're pretty good at give and take,” Travis said. “If one of us feels really strongly about something, then the other is usually okay with that. We just work really well together and balance each other out.”
The retail result of that synchronicity is a colorful and comprehensive one-stop shop where locals can find a huge assortment of patterns on Teton Trade Cloth that Travis and Fairbanks say previously could only be found online or by traveling.
Among the patterns are small shawl dancers tumbling through candy-colored striped backgrounds, bears and buffalo bounding against ledger art backgrounds, and an abundance of hummingbirds, florals and turtles perfect for regalia or any piece featuring Indigenous flair.
The duo also fills custom orders and offers ribbon skirt kits to help people start their own sewing journeys.
“It's pretty amazing to be able to provide these fabrics and products to our community,” Travis said. “It's something that we've thought about and dreamt and wished for ourselves for a very long time. So it's exciting to be able to offer this.”
Those who can’t make it to the shop in Brooklyn Park’s Cherokee Center can also order from Fire Mountain’s website. The store owners want potential customers to know that the brick-and-mortar shop will have limited hours for the time being, and advise interested customers to regularly check their Facebook page and website for a calendar with their hours listed.
The limited hours are due to the fact that both Fairbanks and Travis already have full-time careers, families and health issues. Travis is a registered nurse, and Fairbanks — a finance manager at the nonprofit American Indian Family Center — is fighting ovarian cancer.
Handling all of that in addition to a new business venture may seem near impossible, but that’s where the balancing act comes in.
“That's why we work well as a team,” Travis said. “When she's not able to do it, I'm picking it up. When I'm not able, she's picking it up.”
The pair’s natural talent for give and take also extends to the aesthetics of their inventory. Fairbanks has very strong opinions about patterns, and Travis helps her see beyond her own preferences.
“Sometimes I'm drawn to certain things and not to other things, and Jess has to say that there are gonna be people out there that don't have your taste that will like it, so I have to expand that taste a little bit,” Fairbanks said. “And the fabrics I didn’t like become some of our best sellers. So just changing and getting out of your comfort zone is important.”
The feeling of trust and respect between the friends has been blooming for nearly nine years, ever since they met at an American Indian Parent Advisory Committee meeting for the Osseo School District.
“They have regalia classes, and I was involved in them for probably about two years before Jessica came in. She started by making her daughter's fancy shawl outfit,” Fairbanks said. “So we started meeting up every other Saturday, and that's where our friendship began, and we started taking our kids together to drum and dance night. “
The friendship continued to grow, and when Fairbanks was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last summer, Travis was a major source of support. She accompanied Fairbanks to her chemo infusions and helped lighten up a potentially enervating and depressing experience.
“We have healing energy, and that's what got me through chemo,” Fairbanks said. “We were always the loudest ones in the chemo room; aways just joking around and teasing each other and laughing.”
But it wasn’t all joking around. It was during a chemo session last August that the friends began to seriously discuss getting into the fabric biz.
“We were just talking about a recent Pow Wow, and looking at the fabric from Teton, and thinking about becoming a vendor,” Fairbanks said. “And that's when we decided we needed to open up our own store. And Jessica agreed. I was so happy.”
They didn’t waste any time getting the business up and running. Within a few days of deciding to team up in retail, they became incorporated, filed with the IRS and the state, and came up with their name.
Then the search for merch and the work of setting up a website commenced. The pair started online sales in October, followed by selling at Powwows and other events.
“Just seeing the reaction of people's faces and the gasp of seeing the fabrics for the first time has been a really fun experience,” Travis said. “It’s also been good for our kids to be able to see the process of building a business, and how it went from an idea to an actual store. Now they walk into the store and say, Mom, I can't believe this is happening!’ The support from our families and community has been great.”
To finance their new venture, the two put some of their own money down and also obtained lines of credit.
Fairbanks’ previous experience running small businesses has been a boon for Fire Mountain.
“I've had the entrepreneur spirit for a long time, and even when I was growing up on the Navajo reservation, I would buy dollar store items and then go to the flea markets and sell them,” she said.
Fairbanks also helped other small-business owners with bookkeeping and navigating the world of Quickbooks.
“I've always had this passion to help new small businesses get set up,” she said. “Finances and accounting are always a struggle for new business owners. They come in and say, ‘I don't know anything.' Here's my box of receipts. So I set that up for them.’’
There has been so much interest in Fire Mountain’s fabrics that the two are already looking into opening a store on Navajo Nation. Their ultimate goal is to make Fire Mountain their sole business focus.
In the meantime, they’re savoring the moment, working hard, and enjoying each other’s company.
“There’s a lot of laughter. It gets you through some of those hard times,” Travis said. “You need that laughter.”