Flyin High at Free Bird Company
By Sheena Morris
Published in Fresno Magazine May 2010
Photos by Eddie Melikian
While small businesses struggle to keep their doors open in an unforgiving economy, it is refreshing to see a business open with little more than a $200 gift card and a dream that still continues to soar.
Reminiscent of a time when harmony with nature and artistic and musical experimentation were a societal staple, Free Bird Company now offers Fresno a step back in time. Displays of hand-made trinkets, peacock-feathered earrings and a myriad of psychedelic tops and dresses will have you feelin’ groovy.
History: After losing his job as an air conditioning tech in the economic downfall, Doug couldn’t find work in his field. He and his wife Linda slowly started using their hobby of craft-making as a more permanent means of income. While they had traveled up and down California selling their hand-made goods at festivals and fairs, the couple decided that it was something to pursue more vigorously.
Doug and Linda set up their very first booth on a rainy, Memorial Day weekend in Coarsegold. It consisted of a 5-foot table coming out of a motorhome. “We had two umbrellas covering the bags we made…I couldn’t even afford a canopy at that point,” Doug recalls. “We started the business on a $200 gift card and my wife and I sat up until 2 am and made tie-dyed handbags out of T-shirts…we did that and made $34 for the entire weekend,” Doug recalls.
The couple’s hard work started gaining notoriety after spending up to 43 weeks a year traveling to festivals as well as getting involved in local farmer’s markets and craft fairs. They opened a small shop in Coarsegold, where it all started, but when the summer months ended and tourists began dwindling, the couple decided to close shop and move somewhere they could run their business year-round.
What makes it unique?
In December 2009, they moved their business to the vibrant Tower District and expanded their offerings. Local artists contribute one-of-a-kind products, including T-shirts, bags, jewelry and other accessories. Not only will you find colorful hippie-esque clothing, but you can also find fun Rasta wear as well as jackets brought in from the Himalayas that are hand-crafted, hand-dyed, stitched, embroidered and hand-painted. Art and other home décor items are also available.
“A lot of the stuff is just like our tie-dyes; it’s unique in itself and not any two are the same. We try to keep our products a little bit on the unique side where you can’t just find it in any other store, but at the same time we try to keep true to what we’ve kind of established; the 60s and 70s, retro-type,” Doug said.
Although it may seem that this sort of shop would garner a small niche of people seeking very taste specific products. Doug has found his customer-base to exhibit quite a variety. Serving hippies from the 60s and 70s, bikers, businesspeople and students alike, Free Bird Co. has thrived on mostly word-of-mouth advertising.
Supporting local artists and offering the friendly service and experience you expect from a small town store is what Free Bird Co. strives to provide. Recognizing that consumers go into stores often knowing what they want, quickly making their purchase and leaving, is something Doug hopes to diminish with his own business. Doug and Linda want to get back to the point where people can enjoy their experience and have fun.
The couple has already received offers from people wanting to turn the shop into a franchise, but Doug says he is more interested in building the business up before considering that option.
Doug intends on traveling throughout the state doing some fairs and festivals to keep the business name out there, but with a bona-fide business to run, he’ll focus a lot of attention on local events. Where Doug can’t travel, he hopes to reach people beyond Fresno through Free Bird’s website (www.freebirdcompany.com).
What started out as a part-time hobby that brought in disposable income for family vacations, turned into and opportunity that presented itself as a financial necessity during the un-stable job market, Doug and Linda have three children who live at home and occasionally contribute to the success of the business.
“It’s a lot of hard work and it’s been a seven-day-a-week job for the last two years, but it’s been well worth it,” Doug said. “If we can make a living at it, great, if not, then we’ll just keep having fun.”