With a warm smile and greeting, Nature Gallery owner Carol Garsten welcomed visitors into her Los Altos store on a recent afternoon, drawing attention to a curated collection of fossils, geodes and minerals that sparkled from brightly lit glass cases, decorative bowls and ornate stands.
"I think there's perfection in the imperfection," Garsten said. "The Japanese call it wabi-sabi. A geode, for example, is just a rock that looks like nothing. And then inside, it's filled with beautiful gems. So, it's a metaphor for always looking for the beauty within."
For 35 years, Garsten has shared this philosophy with customers, selling geologically inspired sculptures, jewelry and furniture decor. But this venture will soon end, as Garsten plans to retire and close her shop at 296 State St. on Dec. 24.
"It's time to spread my wings and do something else," Garsten said. "Thirty-five years is a long time to be doing one thing."
Trained as a filmmaker at the University of Southern California, Garsten did not expect to pursue a career in retail. But this changed when her mother, Norma Tager, became ill with stage 4 ovarian cancer. To help with the stress of the diagnosis, Tager developed an interest in the healing energy of crystals, using them as a form of adjunctive therapy.
Tager recovered from ovarian cancer, which Garsten attributed to experimental medical treatments. She also shared Tager's belief that the crystals played a role in the healing process.
"It was a way to find peace and calm through connecting with the crystals," Garsten said.
At Tager's urging, Garsten decided to leave the film industry and join her mother in San Luis Obispo to become a partner in her new store, Nature Gallery.
"It was like on a wing and a prayer because we didn't really have anything," Garsten said, recalling that they displayed crystals on card tables when the store first opened in 1987.
Garsten and Tager eventually relocated to the Bay Area in 1994 to be closer to medical professionals, a decision that also coincided with the Silicon Valley dot-com era. They leased a small space in Palo Alto's Town & Country Village, attracting high-profile clients from the tech industry. It was a heady time for Garsten but also one of sadness, as Tager died of breast cancer in 1996.
For 17 years, Garsten ran Nature Galley from Town & Country Village, commuting to work by bicycle and enjoying the close-knit feel of the area. This changed, however, when new landlords took over the shopping center. Nature Gallery did not fit in with their corporate model, Garsten said, so she did not renew her lease.
Garsten decided to relocate Nature Gallery to Los Altos, a place where clients could easily visit from Palo Alto and where she could retain the sense of community that she created in Town & Country Village.
"That's the essence of what retail has to be now, coming out of the internet economy. It's connecting with customers, really knowing people," Garsten said.
Garsten's focus on interpersonal relationships paid off during the pandemic. Unlike many other small business owners, Garsten did not take out loans to stay financially solvent. Nature Gallery actually profited in 2020 and 2021. Garsten attributed her success to her pivot to online retail while also maintaining a sense of human connection with customers.
Whenever possible, she delivered packages personally to her clients' homes, ringing doorbells and conversing with them from a safe distance.
"Later people came back and told me nobody was doing that," Garsten said. "And it felt really heartfelt to them, that I came out to visit with them."
Garsten's email newsletters, sent out to approximately 3,000 people, also reflects her connective touch. Normal retail open rates are 18% to 20%, Garsten said, whereas her emails have open rates of 45% to 50%.
"It's because I want to tell stories. I want to show beautiful pictures, and I want to send out communications and stay connected in a way that makes people happy," Garsten said.
Although Garsten holds out hope that someone will buy Nature Gallery and keep it open, she plans to move on regardless. Garsten intends to remain fully immersed in community events in Los Altos and Palo Alto, though. With an eye toward marketing, Garsten plans to mentor other business owners, drawing on her experiences to help them negotiate the connective spaces of online and in-person retail.
"It's a little bittersweet, this change," Garsten said.
She nodded to two wooden chairs near her desk that came from the first Nature Gallery in San Luis Obispo.
"When my mom passed, she passed the torch. And I'm ready now to pass the torch on to the next owner. But if that's not meant to be, so be it. It's time for my next chapter."