True grit

Katie Thomas has Moxie

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Katie Thomas faced a dilemma in 2009.

The human resources position that brought her to Taos two years earlier ended

when the company left town. She could have relocated, but she had already bought a home here.

And Thomas discovered she loved living in Taos.

“I had to figure a way to stay here,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t work an hourly job to pay my mortgage. I was single.” Her solution? Be a business owner.

Considering Taos and elsewhere had plunged into the Great Recession, Thomas showed true grit when she opened Moxie Fair Trade & Handmade. Never mind

she didn’t have any experience with retail.

And remarkably, more than seven years later, her business, which carries fair trade and U.S.- made products, is not only going strong, Thomas owns Yucca Plaza, which has a block of 12 businesses, including Moxie.

Seizing an opportunity

Six weeks after losing her job, Thomas bought Import Outlet, located next door to Moxie’s current location at 216 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, from Susanna Starr

and began running her new store.

She changed the store’s name to Moxie after running a contest on KTAO radio station. One person nominated Chutzpah, a Yiddish word for audacity, with the remark, “It takes a lot of guts to do this in a bad economy.”

But the spelling of Chutzpah was problematic, so Thomas opted for Moxie, which is close to its spirit. She admits the business started on a shoestring. It didn’t have a computer, only a cash box. She couldn’t afford any extras or help.

For the first two years, Thomas worked every day alone.

Her motto was: “If this fails, it’s not going to be because I didn’t try hard enough.”

Being in charge

Thomas is originally from Connecticut, where she got a biology degree at the University of Connecticut.

She and her boyfriend, whom she later married, moved sight unseen in 1975 to Portales, New Mexico, where he attended grad school. It was a bit of a culture shock, she admits.

The couple returned to Connecticut, married and moved to Albuquerque, where she still has family — a daughter, Tiffany, and a 5-year-old grandson, Michael.

As for the degree in biology, Thomas originally thought she wanted to go to medical school.

“I decided I didn’t have the discipline or the patience or the money or the smarts,” she said. “It wasn’t a useful degree, but I did work in the healthcare field for a while.”

In Albuquerque, she worked for an ophthalmologist, but increasingly got more involved in the office’s front end, such as hiring, human resources and other

responsibilities.

She says she liked being in charge, so she went to the University of New Mexico to earn a management certificate with an emphasis in human resources. She

had a couple of HR jobs before moving to Taos.

The goods

Moxie carries an array of clothing that includes a men’s line, jewelry, toys and home accessories. (Thomas says the store’s biggest sellers are alpaca blankets, clothing and finger puppets.)

About 65 percent of the goods are imported Fair Trade and the rest, U.S. made.

Thomas admits she didn’t know a lot about fair trade at first, but she educated herself about the benefits, that it’s an ethical and helpful way to do business.

“It’s not just about reselling things,” she said. “It’s about making a difference and that aspect really attracted it to me.”

Thomas depends on the Fair Trade Federation to ensure everything about a product — from its inception to middlemen to its transportation — meets stringent standards. She also attends various conferences and trade shows.

The store’s U.S.-made goods include those that are locally produced, including art created by Thomas, who works in clay, beads and fiber.

Moxie’s customers are a mix of locals and tourists, with a heavy emphasis on the people who live here.

While Thomas welcomes customers from out of town, she recognizes tourism can be cyclical. So she gears prices to locals and even offers a loyalty punch card.

“We want to be successful year-round,” she said.

Two years ago this July, Thomas called up the landlord of Yucca Plaza, who lived in Albuquerque, to make him an offer, and after the sale went through, she undertook a series of improvements, including a new roof, three sets of stairs and a new swamp cooler. She redid the bathrooms, repainted the columns and installed flower boxes.

When a business leaves, she redoes the space. She doesn’t accept any businesses that might compete with existing ones.

Work ethic

Businesses frequently come and go in Taos, but what keeps Thomas going is a strong work ethic.

“I work really hard, four to five days, sometimes more,” she says. “I think being on-site as a business owner makes a huge difference.”

She practices sound basic business practices, such as having regular hours and listening to what her customers want. Good customer service is important, as is offering quality merchandise at good prices.

“I have really good employees and we try to go above and beyond to provide a good customer experience,” Thomas said. “And we have fun.”

Thomas has three part-time employees, including Terra Matthews, who was the first to be hired in 2011.

Matthews calls Thomas “one of the most creative and energetic people” she’s ever known.

She says the store remains successful because Thomas has created a fun atmosphere and has made the complex more appealing.

Besides, carrying fair trade goods from all over the world is very appealing to Moxie’s customers.

“Everything has a story and a person behind it,” she said.

Then, there are the little things like keeping bologna in the fridge for customers’ dogs. Food and drink are allowed in the store.

And because community is important to Thomas, she is a supporter of local nonprofits with causes she feels are important, such as Stray Hearts, Community Against Violence and Habitat for Humanity.

When she isn’t working at Moxie, Thomas spends time in the studio, reads and visits her daughter and grandson. She bikes in the summer.

Then, there are her three rescue dogs, Mindy, Milo and Susie, a malamute who has her own story. For many years, Susie had been wandering downtown and being fed by local restaurants until Thomas managed to win her over.

Thomas said, “Eventually, she got in my car and went home with me.”

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