If you’re a design-enthusiast heading to Raleigh, North Carolina, the first place you’re going to want to stop by after you get off the plane is Port of Raleigh, a shop owned by Ana Maria Muñoz who curates an impeccable collection of modern objects that are designed to elevate everyday living. Ana Maria works with established and emerging designers who are reinventing ordinary items into ones that are design-driven, artful, and enjoyable to use. Rather than filling a home with objects that normally would look more or less the same in every household (like a coffee press or electrical cable), Port of Raleigh provides you with clever-looking options that have the same functionality but an upgraded design. Some of these designs are either making their first debut in North Carolina, regionally in the Southeast USA, or even in all of the USA!
After chatting with Ana Maria, it is clear that she is equal parts savvy business owner and design aficionado. Read on to see how Port of Raleigh got its start, which items are the store’s best sellers (so you can start early on holiday gift-giving), and the importance of your personal North Star when growing your business.
Why did you pick this city?
We live in downtown Raleigh so it was a no brainer to invest in our own community. It’s exciting to be part of a city where so much is still so possible. Especially when both long-time locals and newcomers add their own flavor and influences to the independent retail, dining, and art scenes.
My husband and I moved to Raleigh in September 2014 via Los Angeles after living in London and Kuala Lumpur for several years. We chose to live in Raleigh for many reasons but mainly because we believed that it was the perfect place for us to start our family. Shortly after settling into our new home I realized that there was an opportunity to bring a retail experience that showcased modern global design in an approachable, everyday way. I should note that having a store was always my goal and I had been keeping inspirations very close to my heart for more than a decade. It was just a matter of when and where and this was it!
Where did you get the name for the store?
In talking through what the store would be about – bringing modern design-driven goods from around the world to Raleigh, The Triangle, and North Carolina – we realized that we’d be like a figurative shipping port with imports, and eventually local exports. It was a very quick “yes!” when my husband said Port of Raleigh. It was straight forward and obvious, or so we thought. Leading up to our opening we had people wonder if we were going to be a port wine store. I even had someone call us to find out if we were hiring for shipyard work because we were a “port”. Luckily, most people got it and loved it.
Has it changed much since it opened? How?
Yes, so much has changed since we opened in December 2015. When we first opened I had a very limited budget and was ultra conservative with what we brought in since I didn’t know the ins and outs of my customers’ preferences and needs yet. Plus, the store’s concept as a whole was new for the area; we introduced every single brand we opened with (excluding one) to the entire state of North Carolina. Initially the store looked like a museum/gallery showroom but overtime in getting to know our customers, listening to their needs, and getting deeper into what we’re doing, the store has filled in nicely with mini categories that are highly edited. It really feels like a store that has something for everyone now.
What’s one of the challenges you have with the business?
At the moment it’s keeping the merchandise mix fresh and exciting for our frequent customers while not overdoing it since we’re still new to the majority of the people who walk through our door or visit our web store. With each year that passes I’m comforted in knowing that I’ll master it a bit more. Also, I’m thankful for those loyal customers who dig what we’re doing. We dig them too. So much so that we recently launched a series on our website called “PofR Visits” to celebrate our local design-loving community.
What other stores have you worked in before opening this one?
I worked at Nordstrom while in college and loved my experience there. I became assistant manager in my department and that’s when I learned the importance of so many details from the backroom to the sales floor. The other stores I worked in were my own digital storefronts ranging from Etsy to WordPress and Shopify. I sold flea market finds from London/Europe and sold my own activewear invention, Ring Cozy. I can’t even begin to tell you how useful all of this plus past jobs have been in launching and operating Port of Raleigh. Every experience, over ten years, came together. Even if at times they felt random and disconnected from one another.
What’s your favorite item in the store right now?
I’m going to be a menace and give you two! Favorite recent arrival is the RE.BIN recycling bin. I’m completely obsessed with the brilliant simplicity of it and how it solves a very everyday storage eyesore and problem. It’s that “duh” product that everyone recognizes and appreciates immediately.
Long time favorite would be modular furniture by Flitch Furniture. They design and make all of their furniture here in Raleigh with wood sourced from the Appalachian mountains and milled in western North Carolina. What’s exciting about Flitch is that they’re working in the tradition of fine North Carolina craftsmanship but approaching their designs in a totally contemporary way.
What is this season’s theme/inspiration/story?
With the holiday season just around the corner, we’ll be sharing gift guides and ideas via Instagram for how to effortlessly add design-driven goods into your home and life; for treating yourself and giving to others. Our standing theme and inspiration is the belief that a little good design goes a very long way. One piece can make all the difference in a space and in your life.
Are you carrying any new products and/or undiscovered gems you’re particularly excited about?
I’m really excited to be carrying fresh designs by ThisThat. They’re brand spanking new, out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and their launch products are simple yet intriguing (like their Corkscrew Wall Hook). The best part is that they too are small shop owners – that’s actually how we first connected via Instagram.
What’s been a consistent best seller?
Graf Lantz felted wool pieces, Hasami Porcelain, and Menu Bottle Grinders. Not only do they perform beautifully but they all share a satisfying tactile experience. I love seeing how people engage with everything in the store; I wish we could offer the same hands-on experience to our awesome online customers! But until you can come by for a visit, I hope that our Instagram can add to the digital experience in a small way.
Does the store have its own line?
Not yet but it’s definitely something we’d like to do in the future. Especially if we can partner with local talent to make the “export” thing happen. Our first foray into this was with postcards created in collaboration with a local graphic design group, Creative Offices Of. They’ve been really well received by locals and visitors alike. I think most people buy them to frame instead of mail which, obviously, we love.
Any special events/exhibits/pop ups/collaborations coming up?
We often have art showcases, designer pop ups, and like to open our doors for special community events. Coming up is a Playdate with our friends from Nugget where we open early for a causal hang and parents can mingle while their little ones get creative and play. The rest of the year is pretty much about holiday but we did just wrap up a preview show for a student-led exhibit called Ideal Space. It’s a group of Industrial Design students from North Carolina State University who are creating their own showcase for their furniture, object, and textile designs. We were excited to provide a platform at Port of Raleigh to kick off their work.
Do you have anything from the store in your own home?
Absolutely! I only select things that I’d want (or already use) in our home. We love using the Good Thing General Tray in our living room, the Good Thing Platform Bowl on our dining table, and the Menu Wire Bowl in our kitchen. We use Papier D’ Armenie religiously and I’ve jokingly apologized to many customers for getting them hooked on the papers, too. Also, I can’t forget about our Japanese bath towels – talk about everyday enjoyment!
What’s next for you and your store?
I’m really excited to go into our third year with the majority of big things set and done. The start up stage is no joke, and it’s been a whirlwind
couple of years between being a new mama and new business owner/buyer/sales girl/janitor/marketer/bookkeeper/web admin, you get the idea.
2018 will be more about growing the online store that we launched earlier this year while simultaneously further establishing our local/regional uniqueness as a retail destination. We meet people from around the country that want to keep shopping with us beyond their visit. That makes me want to keep working harder to not only introduce new brands and designers to the Raleigh area and North Carolina, but to the entire USA. We have a few Australian brands for which we’re the only USA stockist and it’s happened a few times with others from Japan. I love the hunt.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned since opening your store?
You know how when you’re in the ideation stage of something and you know exactly what it is you want to accomplish, and how you want to communicate it? That’s your North Star. Keep that close. While of course, you have to be flexible within your business as it grows, that North Star is important to check in with to make sure you stay true to how you want your business to grow.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to follow a similar path to yours, what would it be?
Understand that it’s a lifestyle. Unless you’re flush with cash and can hire a team of people to do everything for you, including being in the store with your customers, then you are it. At least while you’re starting out. I’ve worked office jobs and run my own online-only stores. Operating a physical retail business is so different than doing something on your own, at your computer, on your own time. And you never fully clock out so you better love what you’re creating and sharing. Loving the community you’re doing it in helps too!
Stop by Port of Raleigh at 416 S McDowell St, Raleigh, NC 27601.