By Samantha West
If someone had told Rebecca Cooke a few years ago that she was going to open a home goods store in her hometown, she swears she wouldn’t have believed it.
“I think a few years ago, I wasn’t here … and I think being home inspired this mindset,” said Cooke, 28.
But as Cooke looks back, nearly a year after opening Red’s Mercantile, a modern home goods and accessories shop geared toward women in Eau Claire, Cooke supposes it was meant to be, having found happiness in inspiring both women and fellow small business owners in the community.
“That entrepreneurial bug has always been in me,” Cooke said, “but I never realized that’s what I wanted to do until after college.”
After graduating with a degree in marketing and public relations from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, Cooke said the “nine to five” cubicle job ultimately wasn’t fulfilling for her.
“It was really hard for me to be so boxed in,” Cooke said. “Every day as an entrepreneur is different. I get to choose how I spend my time and everything gets done, but it’s different and easier and more fun to do.”
Cooke soon found herself in the world of political campaigning and financing, quickly rising from a political finance intern in Minnesota, to finance director of several major campaigns across the United States. After serving as finance director of a major campaign for Californian Congressman Raul Ruiz in 2014, successfully raising $3.7 million and cementing a difficult win for the candidate, Cooke found herself at a crossroads.
Fielding job offers in the Washington, D.C. area for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Cooke found herself with options. Instead of taking any of those “vogue, high profile” jobs, Cooke decided to head back home to Eau Claire, longing to be closer to the people she loved, even if it meant a less glamorous career path.
Upon her return in January 2015, Cooke began her political finance consulting firm, Cooke Strategy.
“A lot of people said, ‘You’ll never be able to do that kind of work in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin,’” Cooke said. “It was a gamble, but it worked.”
In the midst of an artistic and economic reawakening in the community, Cooke saw a new opportunity arise.
“I wanted to be part of that energy,” Cooke said. “To be able to work creatively was something that I was kind of craving.”
What emerged was a hybrid between a gift and home goods shop geared toward women ages 25-50, supporting independent makers and selling goods solely made in the U.S. Shelves and tables in the shop are filled with various accessories, home goods, greeting cards, books and various arts catered to Cooke’s own style.
Cooke was able to open her shop in November 2015 – without any financial assistance from anyone.
“It’s kind of the American dream, I guess,” Cooke said of being a woman who started two businesses before she was 28 years old.
Store Associate Cassie Okamoto said it wasn’t just Cooke’s vision and aesthetic for the store that drew her to wanting to work there – it was also her passion for feminism and small business in the community.
“I feel like this is pioneering the change that is coming; this is one of a handful of businesses that is helping Eau Claire to grow,” Okamoto said. “Being behind Becca in what she’s doing is a big deal to me, and I want her to be successful and help her in any way I can.”
Cooke collaborates with fellow small businesses in the area through pop up shops. Most are geared toward furthering the feminism she incorporates in her store with the goods she sells. In the past, Red’s has held events ranging from pop up yoga classes, poetry readings and a “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” event to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination.
“It’s empowering to see a business promote feminism and to see someone behind it who promotes female empowerment and small business so much is so cool,” Max Spooner, the store’s photographer, said. “It’s so boss – it’s so girl boss.”
Elaina Hoit, who co-owns Soul Brewed Coffee with her husband and is a regular Red’s customer, said these pop up shops have created positive opportunities for her – as both a business owner and a shopper.
“I probably spend more time looking around than doing my stuff,” Hoit said. “But it’s a very comfortable space. There are so many things that you can look at and all different … I just feel like Eau Claire is a cool bubble for small business. It’s very supportive.”
After being open for business for a year and remaining sustainable, Cooke recently retired from political fundraising, and is now able to focus on her burgeoning business. But ultimately, Cooke said she just hopes to inspire.
“I hope it’s inspiring for other women in the Eau Claire community, because I think in the Midwest sometimes we’re pushed to pursue very traditional roles as women and traditional white collar jobs,” Cooke said. “Having this shop is a statement of ‘Yes, you can have your dream business and you can do it on a limited budget in a smaller town.’”