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Like Kids in a Candy Store

SMALL COOL 2ND PLACE: Designing Vermont couple finds sweet niche for handmade jewelry.

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Raintree, Burlington, VT

OWNERS: Shannon Mahoney and Michael Tope; URL: raintreevt.com; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2020; AREA: 775 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 1 full time; ONLINE PRESENCE: 4.8 Stars on Google; 17,000 Facebook followers; 20,000 Instagram followers; BUILDOUT COST: $20,000


THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC caused a lot of pain, but it brought bittersweet opportunity, too. Just ask Shannon Mahoney and Michael Tope of Raintree in Burlington, VT, who were able to open a dream showcase for their handmade jewelry creations two weeks before Christmas last year. When a longtime candy shop had to close, the couple jumped at the chance to take over—and make over—its space on the chic Church Street pedestrian mall.

Mahoney and Tope leased the space last September, then the race was on to open in time for the holidays. “We had to completely refinish the floors, the ceiling, the walls,” Mahoney recalls. “We built an entirely new front on the store.” It was a major undertaking, and because of COVID, contractors were booked with home remodeling projects, so the couple had to do most of the work themselves—all the while continuing to make their jewelry, sell it online, and offer shipping and curbside pickup.


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Mom and Pop Entrepreneurs Find A Niche in Vermont for Handmade JewelryMom and Pop Entrepreneurs Find A Niche in Vermont for Handmade Jewelry

Raintree’s intimate yet spacious new location is the third physical home for a business that began on Etsy and still does about 70 percent of its sales online. Mahoney and Tope met in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands where Mahoney was working for Rolex and Tope was with Passman, a company specializing in black coral jewelry. “I had designed a ring for a friend of mine, but I didn’t have my bench tools with me down there,” says Mahoney. That’s how she was introduced to “Motorcycle Mike” in the summer of 2011. “We were married five months later on a beach in St. John, and we’ve been making jewelry together ever since. It was really like the stars aligned for us to come together. We’re just so well-matched aesthetically and in our dreams and visions of what we want in the jewelry world.”

Michael Tope and Shannon Mahoney family

Michael Tope and Shannon Mahoney have been making jewelry together ever since they were married on a beach in St. John, Virgin Islands, a decade ago.

After the couple’s daughter, Riley, was born, they moved to Vermont, where Mahoney has family. They had a studio about 20 miles south of Burlington, “but people wanted to come and meet us, and we realized we needed to have a storefront for that,” so they opened up a small shop in nearby Vergennes. As their online business continued to grow, too, the couple decided they needed to be in Burlington, with its later shipping cutoff times and destination shopping.

In 2017, they took a space on Cherry Street that got spillover traffic from Church Street two blocks away, but the store “was more like a bowling alley, a really long and lean little storefront.” It was a good stepping-stone, “but this is our third store now and it’s definitely third time the charm,” Mahoney says of the Church Street shop. “It’s beautiful, the layout is great, and we love the location.”

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The story of Raintree’s new digs is full of delicious irony. For one thing, says Mahoney, “When I was a kid, I used to tell people I was going to have a candy store when I was grown up. I was obsessed with candy.” Now, she adds, when people visit the former Sweet Thing space and ask, “Do you have candy?” she tells them, “Not the edible kind.” Instead, people discover repurposed antique factory carts and cases filled with bold, colorful statement juicy gem jewelry, all designed and made by Tope and Mahoney.

What’s more, the storefront is located in a building owned by another local family in the jewelry business. Knowing that Mahoney and Tope coveted a shop of less than 1,000 square feet on Church Street if one ever became available, John A. Beal of Vermont Commercial Real Estate played matchmaker with Jeff and Michael Berger, who own Lippa’s Estate and Fine Jewelry as well as the nearby building that had housed the candy store. The lease has a contract that Raintree can’t sell estate jewelry, which was fine with Mahoney and Tope. “For people who come to us who want repairs or redesign, we just send them over to Lippa’s, so it’s a great relationship,” says Mahoney. “We do different things.”

Factory carts have been repurposed as the bases for unique jewelry cases.

Factory carts have been repurposed as the bases for unique jewelry cases.

Raintree also has forged relationships with other Burlington businesses, including Nu Chocolate, purveyor of the candy that Raintree uses for an annual Willy Wonka-style Gold Bar raffle. (The event began years before Raintree took over the candy store space.) Each holiday season, Raintree sells 700 special chocolate bars bearing numbered golden tickets, and five of them will win one of five golden rings on Christmas morning. In 2020, the sale went live at 10 a.m. on Black Friday, and the bars sold out in 22 minutes. The bars go for $10 each—a perfect stocking stuffer price point—and proceeds benefit one of several local nonprofits. “We’re grateful to be here, and this is the big event we do every year to give back to the community,” says Mahoney.

Although Tope and Mahoney are living a charmed life doing what they love, some pandemic-related challenges remain. One lingering difficulty has been finding staff in a very tight labor market. Before COVID, Raintree relied on part-time salespeople, but Mahoney is eager to hire a full-time assistant manager so she can get back into the studio. “It has to be somebody who really aligns with what we want because they are going to be the extension of us,” she explains.

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Meanwhile, Raintree is working with the Vermont Department of Labor to craft a four-year, 8,000-hour federally accredited apprenticeship for master jewelers. Their first apprentice, a local high school graduate, started at the end of July. The program is a natural niche for Tope, who in his years on St. Thomas taught many islanders how to make high-end jewelry. “He is a master jeweler and a master teacher, which is really hard to find, so he’s the perfect person to head up the apprenticeship part of our business,” says Mahoney.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Hugo Kohl: Lovely, lovely pieces. Beautiful photos, great home page.
  • Michael O’Connor: Everything from the merchandise to the store design has a very definite and unique point of view. Truly well thought out and beautifully brought to life.
  • Jeff Prine:Excellent visuals and product detail on their social media. I love the fact they do their own photography and show details on front and back of the jewelry. Elegant, vintage look interior gives a distinct personality.
  • Jennifer Shaheen: Beautiful and unique jewelry. The jewelry is the star for this store, which is minimalistic in store design and marketing. I appreciate the focus and that the owners are not trying to say too much. it’s wonderful.
  • Ruth Mellergaard: I love their logo, which they designed. One of the interesting things to me is that they don’t use computers for their jewelry design and making; everything is done by hand. The idea of pricing every piece is a great one, friendly and informative.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Raintree

1. BRIDAL BOOM. Raintree had never done much business in engagement rings, but the Church Street storefront has changed that. “People will come in and they’ll drop $10,000 on a ring right away because we have great prices and we have beautiful diamonds, so word is spreading on that,” says Shannon Mahoney.

2. WORK-LIFE BALANCE. Raintree is a true mom-and-pop shop, with Mahoney and Tope doing everything themselves. With two small children, it really helps to have a full-time nanny, Laura Holmes, looking after 8-year-old Riley and Rockford, now 2. “We wouldn’t be able to run the business the way we do without her, so she is our VIP for sure,” says Mahoney.

3. WHAT’S IN A NAME? Raintree comes from the name of the farm where Mahoney grew up in Pennsylvania horse country. It’s a tribute to her father, who was killed when a tornado struck the farm when Shannon was 3 years old.

4. DIY DESIGN AESTHETIC. Mahoney and Tope designed and created their own fixtures, displays and inserts. They restored antique factory carts to use for the bases of their Brazilian wood and glass cases. The cases flank the two side walls with the tops swinging open and up, suspended by custom hooks against the walls. Each piece of jewelry displayed has the price printed and posted in view for the client to see without having to ask for assistance.

5. HIGH PROFILE. Raintree’s designs have won two Spectrum Awards from the American Gem Trade Association. The jewelry is handmade and designed without CAD assistance. The unique designs have attracted a significant following and visitors from as far as Hong Kong.

Try This: Be Good Neighbors.

Mahoney has homemade candy for customers (of course!), but rather than offer extensive refreshments in the shop, Raintree has an account at nearby Leunig’s Bistro, where people can enjoy a beverage while their purchase is being readied. “If I were shopping myself, I would much rather be able to go and have a cocktail two doors down in a beautiful bar,” she says.

Julie Fanselow is a writer, editor, coach, and dot-connector. She was the founding editor of SmartWork Media's magazine for eyecare professionals, INVISION.

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