Build it and they will come. It may be a cliché, but in the case of Abaca Imports, that’s what happened. Abaca built a showroom and warehouse and crammed it full of antique and reproduction furniture from Bali, Java and China; then added some outdoor teak furniture and home accessories with an Asian flair.
Even though the showroom was off the beaten track at the far end of North Fairfax Street, customers found it. Abaca Imports has done so well that it recently opened another store, Abaca Home, on North Fayette Street. The new space will allow the owners to double their inventory.
This new venture by Jim Helwig and Jim Bellas, former partners in the Bicycle Exchange, seems to have hit the right note, and it has come together at the right time. They started out with one supplier, but now that they've been in business for more than a year, Helwig has yet to take one of the three yearly buying trips he scheduled in his business plan; he hasn't needed to.
"Every time I need merchandise, something turns up," he said. "As much as I love to travel, I love being in the store and taking care of my customers.”
The source and the merchandise may not always be exactly what he planned, but so far it has worked out very well. For example, one of his customers traveled frequently to Morocco, so he started bringing back some Moroccan rugs. Another customer, Ed Nef, purchased a container of merchandise for his daughter, but she was unable to use it. Helwig took it and ended up with antique pieces from China, including an 1850s armoire, antique hutch (complete with Wu Fu, the Five Bats of Happiness) and a virtually intact village gate.
Olivia Pouillon has been importing Indonesian furniture for Abaca. Helwig met Pouillon at Eastern Market one day when he was looking for an importer from Indonesia. He found out that Pouillon was also opening an import business in Old Town at the same time. Helwig was a little concerned at first, but the two became friends, and Pouillon's venture, Khandi, did not conflict with Abaca.
Pouillon has since closed the business and he is now pursuing his dream of spending half the year in Bali and half the year in the U.S. At the same time, he's concentrating on his wholesale business and consigning pieces to Abaca.
THIS NEW BUSINESS gives Helwig a chance to work with his wife, Catherine. She works for International Monetary Fund during the week but helps with the layout and comes in on weekends to help run the store.
For Catherine, this business is closer to her heart than the bicycle business, which Helwig has been in since he was 15. Helwig met Catherine in France when he was studying French; he had planned to become a French teacher but decided to pursue the business route instead.
Working part-time at bike stores through high school and college, Helwig connected with Jim Bellas and Bicycle Exchange, not long after he moved to the Northern Virginia area in 1984. The company was profitable for many years, but a plan to go nationwide with venture capital proved to be the demise of the corporation, and the principals sold the business in 1999.
Helwig took off for the Far East, where he achieved his goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He also spent time traveling to Tanzania, Dubai and Jakarta, Indonesia. One of the offshoots of this, and previous trips with his wife, was that he became interested in importing merchandise from the Far East.
BELLAS, IN THE meantime, had started Turning Point Associates, a consulting firm designed to assist small and medium-sized businesses. He and Helwig stayed in touch, and when Helwig decided that the import business was the way he wanted to go, he approached Bellas about partnering with him.
"We really enjoyed a good partnership. Working with Jim was something that would stay high on my list. I wanted to work with somebody I respected and trusted."
And so they waded into unfamiliar waters, knowing that their business sense would carry them through. Once they decided to move forward with the project, Bellas said, they serendipitously found a source of inventory and warehouse space very quickly, enabling them to open even earlier than they planned. The store opened in April 2002.
With Helwig's wife so involved in the business, Bellas has taken a back seat in this partnership. He enjoys his involvement, however, because, as a consultant, he can practice applying the advice that he gives to his clients.
"It's beyond a source of income for them; it's a labor of love," said Bellas.
CATHERINE'S FLAIR shows in the attractively arranged vignettes in the front room of the original store, and more so in the new Abaca Home store.
A shelf may have an eclectic arrangement of purses, vases, a teapot, pillow and a small trunk. The antique hutch includes a Buddha, some accent pieces and a reproduction Chinese lantern. There are many different choices of lighting throughout the store, both for inside and outside. Some of the nicest pieces are the low-voltage, teak tower lights designed to be strung outside on a deck.
Everything they've done so far has been carefully thought out. Even the store's name reflects the company's philosophy. Abaca is the name of a plant related to the banana tree and harvested for its extremely strong and durable leaf sheath fibers, which are used to make ropes, clothing and paper-based materials.
Helwig and Bellas believe that this strength and durability are reflected in the products they offer as well as the relationships they maintain with their customers.