A Unique Boutique

05/23/2024

by Victoria Ritter

 

For many years, Pam Bland knew she wanted to be involved in the education sector in some way. She earned her teaching degree and taught for a year before she realized that teaching wasn’t her calling. Instead, she pivoted to help equip teachers.

“I always liked the tools – the backgrounds stuff to present in a classroom,” she explained.

 

A small space to call her own

Bland comes from a business background, as her family owns and operates Randall Lumber & Hardware, a long-standing local business in Taos, NM. There, she learned the ins and outs of operating a store, from stocking to inventorying. When she approached her parents with the idea to open her own school supply store, they fully supported her venture. Bland’s mom – who was the bookkeeper at Randall Lumber & Hardware – even helped her daughter learn about financial matters such as bill payments.

Bland opened Unicorn School Supply and Stationery in Taos in 1984. Her initial space was located on an industrial street. “It was actually set up for a couple offices, so it was only 800 square feet,” Bland said.

Two years later, Bland moved her store to a 1,200-square-foot rental space at the end of her parents’ property. She stayed there for about a decade before moving to her current location at 311 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Her available space doubled to 2,400 square feet and is adjacent to her family’s business; it once served as a an uncle’s tool repair/model airplane section off of the hardware area.

Throughout it all, Bland was determined to have a modest footprint. With no other employees to manage the store, the smaller space is more manageable and offers an intimate feel for customers.

“It’s small, but small is what I do,” Bland stated. “If a task doesn’t get done today, it’ll definitely get done tomorrow,” she added with a laugh.

 

Beyond teaching supplies

When selecting a name for her business, Bland wanted to reflect the range of products the store would provide and capture customers’ imaginations. As she liked unicorns when she graduated from college, Unicorn School Supply and Stationery was a standout name. Bland later added the tagline, “If unique is what you seek.”

At the time of Unicorn School Supply and Stationery’s founding, the closest supply store was located in Albuquerque, approximately two hours away. Bland took inspiration from their business model and started establishing credit with manufacturers.

Bland supplements school supplies with stationery and greeting cards. The store’s inventory has grown over the decades to include items that customers are looking for and products that Bland likes.

“From the start, I didn’t want to sell just school supplies,” Bland said. “Taos is a small town and people look for variety.”

Bland carries about 12,000 SKUs that span across stationery, school and art supplies.

The store’s layout is a melting pot of products. Sections are organized by subject and then by age, though areas tend to meld into one another. Art supplies filter into the crafting products segment, which in turn melds into the science section.

“It all works so well together,” Bland observed. “Somebody comes in for a game for a kid, and then they realize they also like painting. So, they get little watercolor sets and brushes.”

Educational materials, which take up about half of the store, include supplies for kids such as pencils, erasers and glue sticks; bulletin board items; science and math resources; and puzzles and games. Popular items range from building sets to science kits and critical thinking toys, though Bland has seen kids use their allowance money for stickers, temporary tattoos and animal figurines. She stocks brands including Carson Dellosa, Evan-Moor, Learning Resources and Creative Teaching Press.

“I really like to find smaller companies that don’t have huge minimums,”
she said. “I love small, quality companies that are unique.”

When looking for items to stock shelves, Bland turns to her customers for ideas, relies on the knowledge of sales reps and reads specialty magazines including Educational Dealer, Art Materials Retailer and edplay.

Bland also keeps abreast of recent trends; she is currently seeing an increased interest in building toys and STEM themes. “It’s more than just a toy,” she said. “People are looking for something they can teach with. Why does this magnetic latch work? What makes the marbles go down the marble run? They’re asking those kinds of questions.”

 

A special place for all

Although the majority of Unicorn School Supplies and Stationery’s customer base is teachers and school administrations, parents and students also use the store as a resource. Bland caters to homeschooled students with a selection of activity books for supplementary lessons. Customers hail from across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

The store’s collection of art supplies has grown over the years. Taos is an art community, Bland explained. When the town’s big art supply store closed in 2016, customers turned to Unicorn School Supplies and Stationery.

“Immediately, people started coming in and asking for art supplies,” Bland said, adding she stocks supplies that local art teachers require for their classes. “I realized I didn’t have to carry $45 brushes and $60 tubes of paint because I had students – that’s my focus – so I can have the student-grade art supplies. It’s almost neck-and-neck with educational supplies.”

Bland doesn’t have an online catalog, preferring to have customers shop in-store. Instead, she lists types of products on her website, unicornschoolsupplies.com – along with images – to give customers an idea of what is available.

Those who come into the store are greeted with a fun and imaginative atmosphere. One of the first fixtures that Bland bought Unicorn School Supplies and Stationery was a clawfoot bathtub. She filled it with pillows made by her sister and positioned stools around it to create a reading nook. Generations of kids have curled up inside that tub and read books.

Due to the store’s smaller size, Bland is unable to host community events. However, there is something special planned to mark the business’ 40th anniversary. This summer, Bland will host an art contest where people can draw or paint a unicorn-themed image to hang on the drop-tile ceiling. She held a similar event for the store’s 30th anniversary.

“We put the paper on the panels – and they’re still on the ceiling now, decorating the store,” Bland said. “We’re going to have another contest in May to cover the rest of the tiles.”

 

Learning and growing

Bland looks back on the last four decades pragmatically, yet fondly.

“It takes your blood, sweat and tears 24/7,” she stated. “You go home at the end of the day, but there are still things that need to get done. It’s your life and it’s all up to you.”

Today, business is going well overall, though changed since the pandemic, Bland said. She reported that traffic was “flat” towards the end of last year, but things are starting to pick up. “There were really good days and some not so good days. It seems in the last six weeks or so, I’ve been getting more traffic in again. I’ve had several larger orders from school, so that’s encouraging.”

Bland attributes her store’s success to its consistency, ability to provide unique items and her connections with customers. Unicorn School Supplies and Stationery has become a local resource for people, whether it be travelers asking about local sites or regular patrons seeking a new and interesting product.

“If somebody comes in looking for something and I don’t have it, I try to find it for them – or help them find it somewhere else.”

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