High-Fiber Operation

This Essex Junction shop is one of the Web’s leading retailers for knitters

by Holly Hungerford

kal_lead4281cropIn 2002, when she opened Kaleidoscope Yarns in Essex Junction, Jill Bujold created a double-whammy by marrying her love of knitting with her computer expertise.

When the owners of Mary T. Booth Yarn Shop in Essex Junction retired and closed their shop some eight years ago, many local knitters were devastated. One knitter decided to do something about it. Jill Bujold took the bull by the horns — or the sheep by the wool, if you will — and in May 2002 opened Kaleidoscope Yarns on Pearl Street in Essex Junction.

“The owners, Marilyn and Bob Vincent and Carol Booth, were hoping one of their customers would open their own store, and when I approached them about it, they offered to help me make it happen,” says Bujold.

They became her mentors and, when the shop opened, Bob Vincent was there daily, lugging boxes, unpacking orders, doing whatever was needed. “He wanted to see this be a success,” Bujold says. Booth stills volunteers at the store from time to time, pitching in wherever help is needed.

A native of Philadelphia, Bujold grew up in Chadds Ford, Pa., and began her knitting career in ninth or 10th grade, she says, when her mother taught her the craft. “My first project was a Portuguese fisherman’s sweater,” she recalls. She knit through high school and into college — she chose Middlebury, where her sister was a student — and even met her future husband, Marc, while knitting.

“One day I was doing my laundry and knitting a hat while I waited. Marc came into the laundry room and that was the first time we met,” Bujold says with a smile. They married in 1994 and are parents of twin 10-year-old girls. Although Marc is co-owner of the store, he handles only the strategic side of the business, leaving the rest to his wife while he works full time as business development manager for North America at Nokian Inc., which moved its North American headquarters to Colchester in 2009.

After graduating from Middlebury in February 1990 with a degree in Italian and art history, Bujold took a job at the front desk of the Town & Country Resort in Stowe. “I worked 3 to 11,” she says. “That way I could ski during the day.” Before long, she added a part-time job at AJ’s Ski & Sports, also in Stowe. Within a few months, she left Town & Country to work full time at AJ’s, which is where she learned the many aspects of a retail operation.

Three years later, she took a position in the customer service department at Nordica Ski Co. in Williston. Within six months, she moved into sales and marketing, where she found she was very talented on the computer, and gained good skills in Microsoft’s programs. When Nordica’s parent company, Benetton Co., moved operations to New Jersey in 1998, Bujold found herself without a job.

“At that point, I had a lot of good skills with Excel,” says Bujold. “I was approached by Market Makers LaserImage down on Pine Street, and taught part time for them — all kinds of computer classes.”

She supplemented classes with a part-time job on the help desk in the IT department at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, where she taught employees how to be more efficient with their Microsoft programs. She was there a year, but left in 1999 when her girls, Helen and Sophie, were born.

The first two months after opening the store in 2002, Bujold was the sole staff member. When she realized she couldn’t handle it easily alone — “I wanted the job to be fun, not to kill me,” she says — she found that customers were willing to work at the store part time and to teach some classes. She now employs two full-time people, three part-time people, and three or four teachers.

Six months after opening, Bujold launched the Kaleidoscope Yarns’ website. At first, about 70 percent of the store’s products were on the Web. Today 98 percent of the products are available there. Over the years, online sales have grown to the point where Kaleidoscope has become a leading online yarn retailer, says Bujold, who sees the online business and the physical store as separate-but-linked entities.

“It has always been important for my local customers to think of us as their local yarn shop, not as a mail-order business,” she says. “As our online presence has grown, our local customers have embraced our evolving into a nationally known retailer. We have a leading bricks-and-mortar presence in Vermont and are now also a major player online in the yarn category, with our Web sales in some months accounting for as much as 70 percent of our sales.”

Doing so much business online means Bujold can carry products that wouldn’t normally sell in Vermont. Her large inventory is stored in the basement and attic at the shop and at a full office space in the building next door. Orders are shipped internationally daily to countries that include the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Japan, Israel, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.

Bujold estimates the company has shipped more than 53,000 orders in the last seven years. Last year, she switched order-management and point-of-sale systems. She admits to experiencing months of trauma until details were worked out, but says she is a big fan of using the computer and, with the new system, everything is much more streamlined. “My whole thing is efficiency,” she says. “I want our orders shipped within 24 hours.”

Closer to home, Kaleidoscope Yarns caters to Vermont knitters of all ages. Her customers run the gamut, from teens to new moms, from professionals to grandmothers. She even has 15 or 20 male customers, a number that has increased since the shop opened. “We do see a lot more men at this time of year as they come in during the holiday season to buy gift cards for the knitters in their lives,” she says with a grin.

Her staff is as diverse as the customer base, covering a wide age range and a variety of knitting styles.

Kali Erskine has been shopping at Kaleidoscope for several years. Although there is a yarn store five minutes from her home in Montpelier, she chooses to drive to Essex Junction for her knitting supplies. “It’s a very special store,” she says. “It’s beautiful, bright and clean, and the staff are really knowledgeable and very helpful. Plus, they offer a great range of yarns.”

Unlike many other retail enterprises, says Bujold, Kaleidoscope has fared well during the economic downturn. “Knitting is a feel-good activity — a stress reliever. For some people, a trip to the yarn shop is like a visit to the therapist.”

The current volume of business, however, does not match the 2004 and 2005 years, when knitting experienced a huge boom. “Novelty yarns came out at that time and everyone was making scarves,” Bujold recalls. “We called those years ‘The Scarf Years.’”

Fortunately, she was able to anticipate when the market for novelty yarns was going to change and adjusted her ordering accordingly. “Some craft stores were left with a large inventory of novelty yarns that remained on the shelf for a long time,” she says.

In addition to providing the materials for knitting, Kaleidoscope Yarns teaches the craft. Three or four people, most of whom have worked in the shop at one time or another, teach a range of classes from beginning knitting to more advanced projects. Spring and fall, Bujold offers between 10 and 20 classes. No classes are offered in the summer as it is traditionally a slower time. “Our summers are so short, everyone’s thinking of being out on the lake, not knitting,” says Bujold.

The shop offers classes for adults and children, and last summer Bujold added a camp for children in third, fourth, and fifth grades. From 8:30 to noon, the six or eight kids in the camp learned about all aspects of knitting, including how to dye and felt wool. Bujold offered two sessions of the camp in 2009. Next year she plans to offer a beginners’ camp and one for children who already have experience with the craft. “My goal is to teach them to understand how to knit, how to read a pattern, so they can continue to knit throughout their lives,” Bujold says.

The knitting camp was an outgrowth of an after-school program she taught with Suzie von Reyn, a former employee and customer, for the Williston recreation department. This year, Bujold is offering an after-school program at the Williston library. Seven children meet weekly to knit preemie hats.

Knitters are a charitable bunch. Bujold initiates projects. The most recent was for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. “Knitters knitted 13-by-13-inch squares, which were then seamed together into blankets,” she explains. “We ended up with over 200 squares, which enabled us to make three twin-sized blankets and two double-sized blankets.”

Away from the store, Bujold likes to garden and to run. She has competed in a number of races including two half-marathons. As a family, they enjoy skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and Bujold says she is making an effort this year to take weekends off so she can participate more frequently in the slopeside adventures. Of course, she also likes to knit, which brings us back to the beginning.

“Every other job I have had I enjoyed,” she says, “but this one I love.” •