Robert Mason Grimmett was on-brand before there existed such a term.
You could say that a young boy in ’80s Appalachia in a necktie, inspired by fedoras and fountain pens, had a keen sense of self. More than anything, he carried a keen sense of vision and entrepreneurial spirit.
As a 12-year-old in Ravenswood, West Virginia, the future art-school-design kid ahead of his time launched an office supply catalog mailer business from his parents’ basement, building his Robert Mason imprint into a 2,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar within two years.
Grimmett had six figures in revenue before he had his high school diploma.But he was destined to be more than a dutiful shopkeep and capitalist wunderkind. He eventually sold the business to his folks and fulfilled his dream of going to art school in Chicago. Now, armed with the training and skillset to hand-design and curate leather goods and supplies from all over the globe, Grimmett’s passions have fused in his Columbus incarnation of Robert Mason.
Begun as a pop-up concept on Gay Street, Robert Mason’s lifetime in Columbus was nearly a blip after a fire destroyed the Gay Street building it operated from in 2014.
But for something that took 20 years to build, it would take more than that to destroy it. Determined and armed with the help of an uber-supportive business community, Grimmett reopened in the Short North last month, his business intact and his spirit emboldened.
(614) was there to take inventory of the brand that won’t die.
What were your original style icons? Time period more then people. I’ve always loved the era of the American Songbook, jazz days, Sinatra—hence, leather folios, fine writing instruments, awesome hats, and timepieces being some of my favorite things. I am fascinated by these time periods and like mixing them up with new. In those days, everyone looked their best when they left the house.
What drew you to all this vintage stuff as a kid? You could say I am an old soul, or an old man trapped in a younger man’s body. Simply put, office products were cool then. They were made of quality materials and were an accessory. Case in point: the Parker Jotter was an accessory for Don Draper in Mad Men (and yes, we sell those). I didn’t realize I had a business model for this until people repeatedly wanted to buy my stuff, which was at that time not for sale but very quickly was added. Robert Mason started as “Robert’s Design Studio,” which was purely graphic design—not retail.
What was the earliest business lesson you learned as a 12-year-old and is that still relevant now? My grandma—who was and always will be my role model—was also an entrepreneur, and she preached the Golden Rule: to treat others as you wish to be treated. I believe that applies in providing the very best service, which I call “shopkeeper service.” The customer is our friend; we genuinely develop lasting relationships and friendships with everyone that shops in our stores. Anyone who visited one of my grandma’s stores knows what that was like, and I can only hope I am close to providing the same at Robert Mason.
To that end, what’s been your biggest evolution as a businessman or owner? The brand pre-2009 was primarily commodity office supplies, which from my original model was appropriate. In 2009, my middle name “Mason” was added, a vintage persona was developed, and the company rebranded. I always knew that I wanted to change the sterile and bland office supply market, but this was my all-in moment to decide how to do that. In 2013, our private label brands—Vintage No. 1, RM, and Robert Mason Signature—were added and the Gay Street pop-up store opened as Store No. 2 to test my theory and introduce a completely curated collection of my favorite things. The contrast of what we were to what we became is night and day—and it worked.
Did you always know or intend for art school and design to come back around and meet with your business? Yes. I am an artist and designer first, businessman second, and 100 percent pure entrepreneur. My elementary school and high school art teachers would shop in the Ravenswood store. We had art materials, which was an anomaly in a small town. They also knew my passion for art and design. In my time between [high school and college], I moved to Charleston, West Virginia to get a job where I wasn’t the boss and to get used to a bigger city. Charleston is in no way near Chicago in scale, but it was bigger then Ravenswood—and had multiple stoplights. I applied to every retailer in the mall and decided that the first one to call back was where I’d work. That retailer was Bath & Body Works. While not my first choice as a small-town boy, 20-years-old, I had no idea how amazing that experience would be and how inspired I would become. The company was in growth mode—a new concept—and had a store experience that I learned drove the commodity product it sold to be premium. I realized that with my challenges ahead with Robert Mason, and the commodity product I sold, I could learn something here. I changed my major to reflect what I needed to learn to simulate a brand experience. This allowed for me to steer my passion into categories that are mundane and correct why they are completely commoditized in America, and find my niche.
As weird as this may sound, why is style so important? To you, or in the general sense? To me, style is self-expression. When I try to approach the “elevator pitch” of Robert Mason, which is really really hard to explain, I do so by saying that office gear is truly an accessory. We don’t view it that way a lot of times and [it’s] why office product superstores have a bunch of unexciting things. At one time though, fine pens, leather padfolios, and briefcases were sold in department stores in the stationery department. You will not see a stationery department in department stores today. When we look good, we feel good and we are inspired to work better. Robert Mason is built on a culture of creativity and our purpose is to inspire people. Even if just buying a pen from the Pen Bar inspires someone to write, or to finish their day of tasks, we’ve accomplished our goal. Style is a component in our lifestyle brand that helps to achieve an incremental business and tie the concept together as a lifestyle brand positioned around our core assortment of office products.
Do you feel the response to your charming little pop-up shop and the community’s response after the fire says something special about Columbus? I want to make my “yes” extra bold, italic and underline here. Yes. Columbus is a community that wants local businesses to flourish and its people to succeed in a way I haven’t found anywhere else. The fire has been an emotional rollercoaster, but moreso, losing what I am so passionate about, that I enjoy so much, hurt. Robert Mason is like a baby to me—it is my life. I was reminded everyday by people in Columbus that it could be rebuilt and that when I did, they would come back to support it. On Grand Opening day, they did, and it was a beautiful thing.
Check out the new Robert Mason at 17 Brickel St. For more, visit robertmasoncompany.com