Maven to Know: Kristin Kohn, owner, Silver and the city
As the owner of the popular Silver in the City boutique on Indy’s Mass Ave., Kristin Kohn has long been dialed into the pulse of our city, especially the downtown area. She and her husband, Aaron, live in Herron Morton Place with their two high schoolers. “I love it because of the neighbors—many creative and hard-working people who volunteer their time or work in adjacent schools, businesses, and community organizations,” she tells us. “Raising our family in an urban environment and utilizing public schools was important to us.”
Kohn shares her vision for what’s next for Silver in the City, how she’s adapted to all that 2020 has brought to the world, and why it’s so important to her to speak out about what matters most.
Maven Superpower: Empowering others
What initially inspired you to open Silver in the City? How has the store and its mission evolved since then?
I had fond memories of working at a small retail shop during college. I enjoyed connecting with the merchandise, the customers, and being a part of the community in which I worked. This is one of the reasons why I’m located on Mass Ave—desiring to be part of a neighborhood community rather than a shopping center.
When I opened, part of my mission statement was, “to provide a welcoming environment in which to shop and work.” At the time, I had no idea how relevant that mission would be 20 years later. I don’t know that our mission has evolved, but my personal goals have. Growth does not need to always mean more sales. One thing that has grown each year is our work to continually think about how we can provide a better experience for our customers and employees.
You’re a very active presence in the downtown community. Why is that so important to you? Why do you love having a business on Mass Ave?
It’s about connection and collaboration. I feel that’s a very Indy thing. As a small business owner I needed to seek peers and mentors outside of my business and I did this by connecting with the Mass Ave community.
We formed a merchants association because by collaborating we became a multi-faceted destination. What I love about being on Mass Ave for the past 20 years is seeing its evolution. It’s important that we have an appreciation for the history of Mass Ave and the communities it has and continues to serve, even as market-rate housing fills in the empty spaces, there is still.
What has that looked like in this recent period of the quarantine and the Black Lives Matter protests over racial injustice and the killing of George Floyd, as well as other incidents with the police here in Indy?
Working in a street-level business keeps us connected with our community. We cannot help but see and acknowledge the interconnected issues of homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness because it is a part of daily life downtown that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Witnessing firsthand the protests over racial injustice was very powerful. The people coming downtown to participate in the protests also spent time on Mass Ave as visitors—we shared conversations and connected with the emotion behind the protests. Connecting directly with a diverse population, one that has a different experience from our own, expands our worldview, fosters empathy, and fuels supportive action.
We want to encourage and welcome all people to be a part of our community. That is what inspired us to use the boards that covered our storefront to serve as a voice, a reminder of why Black Lives Matter, why people are protesting, why there is anger. If anything, the feelings of powerlessness experienced through the pandemic closures enabled me to empathize with how frustrating it is to feel powerless. That is why empowering others is so important. When you can empower those who have been overlooked and unheard, you are strengthening your community and your economy.
Why is it important for you to make your views clear AND SPEAK OUT?
It started when Governor Pence was supporting RFRA (the Religious Freedom Reformation Act), which allowed belief-based discrimination. It was very anti-LGBTQ legislation that was receiving national attention.
I did not agree with this legislation and I did not feel it represented who we are in Indiana. I wanted the state lawmakers and the nation to know that not every Hoosier supported this proposed legislation—if we do not allow our voices to be heard, then how do we expect our fellow citizens and our lawmakers to know whether or not the bills they are deciding on have support?
Then when our current president was coming into office with promises to restrict reproductive rights, I felt powerless and dismal about his swearing in, so I decide to take a positive action that day with our first ever 100% donation day, followed by another in May 2019 when southern states began passing anti-abortion legislation. Using our voice and taking action gives us power and helps make more people feel confident about sharing their support on issues in a positive way. A quiet majority will not win an issue or an election, we have to speak up.
What do you have planned (either civically or in retail) for the second half of 2020?
In July, Silver in the City celebrated our 20th Anniversary by creating a new philanthropic endeavor, Silver Linings. It is a fund at CICF that will be used to empower people, communities and organizations working hard to improve the racial disparities that exist in Central Indiana communities.
In retail, currently we are hard at work making plans for holiday shopping season. Our business depends on the four to five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas and that will most definitely look different this year.
In-store, we can’t possibly admit as many shoppers as we typically do during the holiday season, so we are adding in appointment-based shopping hours, when customers can make a reservation to shop when the store is not otherwise open to the public. We are also hard at work adding most of our inventory. We will be expanding our delivery services to all of Marion and Hamilton Counties and part of Boone county as well as making our curbside pickup as easy as possible.
What advice would you give to someone looking to open a small business—any time, but especially in the current environment?
I would say start putting your voice to your ideas, speak them out loud, and find support and encouragement from others. Then put action to your voice, writing down your vision and the steps needed to get there. Then start taking those steps.
Try to build your business slowly, maybe a short-term lease on a small space without a deep investment in buildout. Invest in people. Empower your team. Recognize that it is about a brand and not an individual, which allows more people in your business to embody that brand, to feel ownership of it, and participate in growing it.
And what would you say to someone who is afraid to speak out about their views out of fear?
Fear is a coward’s way of controlling others. Resist the urge to allow others to intimidate you from sharing your voice. Find a space where you can freely and honestly share your views without fearing for your safety.
I knew I had support in our community for the viewpoints shared about LGBTQ and reproductive rights. I also knew that sharing this message more broadly would invite those who disagree. I prepared myself and my team to respectfully acknowledge any opposition shared. We never had to defend ourselves and our viewpoints because our community rallied around us spoke out in support and defense of our views and actions when it came to to attacks via comments on social media. We were also prepared to lose customers who did not want to support a business that freely shared its support for equality. That’s part of living in a nation where we have freedom—shopping with us is a choice.
The issues I support are ones I’ve always supported, it’s just more out in the open, and that upset people who choose to not support businesses that support equality (I view reproductive rights as an issue of equality for women).
Feeling secure and supported is empowering, that is why it is so important for those of us who are in a safe and secure space to speak up boldly for those who are not. That is how we empower others. As is helping to provide secure food, homes, jobs, education and healthcare for all.
On a lighter note, what are some of your best-selling items these days?
Well, puzzles and face masks continue to be a strong seller, and jewelry—I think people are treating themselves to a little fresh flair to wear during zoom calls and FaceTime chats. We’ve also noticed a lot of shopping for home work spaces: plants, prints, and desk accessories are growing in popularity.
I’m really excited about our VOTE necklaces coming in soon – I started tracking them down immediately following Michelle Obama’s DNC speech in which she wore a gold version of the necklace. We are selling a sterling silver and an 18k goldfill (gold over sterling) version, with $5 from each necklace going to the League of Women Voters.
Silver in the City is an Indy Maven partner.
Abby Gardner is the executive editor of Indy Maven and a proud downtown resident.