Brightness, lightness and creativity best define The Paper + Craft Pantry space as much as its owner, Pei Sim ’10.

Walking through the doors of the East Austin storefront, one is greeted by the scattered pink, purple, green and blue hues of felt flowers, fresh notebooks, cotton candy-colored stationery and tiny potted plants.

Looking up, the open-concept ceiling of industrial ductwork belies the store’s warmth. As eyes descend from the metal rafters down the white walls, the space fills with the soft colors of a 36-foot greeting card wall and milky pens, highlighters and markers sequestered in plastic cubbies. To the left is a cordoned-off area with chalkboard remnants of the last craft workshop hosted here.

The retail craft store is an embodiment of Sim’s style and passions. Dressed in her graphic tee of multicolored cartoon fruit under a light blue overall dress, she tells of how a love for paper and the nostalgic comfort of tactile arts, like writing a letter to a friend or creating your own greeting card, grew into a business.

“I’ve always loved paper,” Sim confessed, “so I really wanted the store to focus on stationery. At our first location, I started working with 16 different designers to feature their paper goods, and we’ve grown a lot since then. Now, we work with about 90 different designers.”

Entrepreneurship has not always been Sim’s goal. Her company’s story, as many small business owners can attest, is one of risk and courage.

Laying the groundwork

From the get-go, Sim has held complex interests. She graduated from SFA with dual degrees in sociology and dance and, after spending her final semester studying abroad in Italy, she returned home to a bit of uncertainty about her future.

“Out of college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I actually worked a lot of random jobs first,” she said. “I feel the best way to know what you want to do is figuring out what you don’t want to do, so I worked in retail for a year and then at a corporate office. Those experiences still help me today.”

Sim had played around through the years with doodles and crafts, not thinking of them as anything other than a hobby. But it was during her last “real job,” as she terms it, working in a human resources department, she had an impulse to turn her creative scribbles into something more.

Sim taught herself how to scan in designs, digitize and print them. Then in 2013, she took a few stationery creations to a holiday craft market, “and that was the first time I thought, ‘I can really do this.’”

Rather than work less, Sim took on more hours, working her full-time job during the week, teaching dance part time in the evenings and working retail on weekends. Her initial goal was small — save enough money to make and sell more stationery. Little did she know how far this financial plan would take her.

“The silver lining was knowing I was just going to work that many hours for a short amount of time, then I could leave and try running the business without a lot of [financial] pressure,” Sim said. “My friends remind me of how I would say, ‘Oh, in six months I’ll go back and get a real job.’ Now, it’s been almost six years.”

Building a business

When the lease ran out on her Houston apartment in 2014, Sim was feeling restless and ready for change. Austin was a simple three-hour drive, so she took a chance and moved, expecting it to be a pit stop.

The next year, Sim had leased and opened a small storefront on East Sixth Street in Austin. “It really was a warehouse,” Sim said. “There were no windows. You just had no idea what we did until you walked in.”

As The Paper + Craft Pantry grew and Sim remained aware of the location’s constraints — tricky parking and a depressing industrial ambiance juxtaposed against chipper stationery — she set out to find a new location. The real estate search presented its own challenges.

“Real estate is very expensive in Austin, and as a small business, my budget wasn’t huge. I also found it difficult being a woman who maybe looks younger than she really is,” Sim said. “People would not take me seriously.”

In June 2016, Sim signed a letter of intent to relocate her business to a facility still under construction in East Austin. She moved in two years later and opened the shop within two days of receiving the keys.

‘The little things’

Building relationships with both customers and other artists has been key for Sim’s professional success.

For example, when asked to represent small businesses on a panel at South by Southwest, a major multiweek arts festival and conference in Austin, Sim found herself discussing business practices alongside representatives from Bumble, a social and dating app, and Whole Foods Market. An Instagram representative moderated the panel.

“I was terrified,” she laughed. “But knowing public speaking is still scary, I’ve been trying to say yes to it more.”

The opportunity was one of several testaments to how far she’s come professionally. The Paper + Craft Pantry offers a huge retail selection of designers from across Austin, the state and beyond. Unique to Sim’s business, the company also offers almost weekly craft-based workshops, like cross-stitch and watercolor. Word of these gatherings spread so far, individuals from outside Texas contact Sim with requests to host their own weekend how-to classrooms.

“We did a power tools workshop last year,” Sim said before describing one woman who drove from Round Rock to attend. “Her husband had passed away, and she had always wanted to learn how to use power tools. She was very nervous, but by the end of the class, she was so proud of herself. She had a little bit of sawdust on her and was meeting her son for lunch. She told me, ‘I’m not dusting this off my sweater. I need him to see I made this.’”

Running a business has certainly been a process for Sim. Days can be long and some customers unpleasant. There also is the matter of carrying all the responsibility of the business’ success on her shoulders. But most days, Sim finds her East Austin shop is a bit of a byway where life’s random moments converge, like the woman who bought a card monthly to mail to her fiancé serving in Germany. He unexpectedly dropped by the store one day to pick out a card in which to write his wedding vows.

Stories like these remind Sim on tougher days why she took the financial and creative leap and started The Paper + Craft Pantry.

“A girl came in the store over the weekend and was standing very still. I asked her, ‘Is everything ok?,’ and she said, ‘I’ve had a really hard week, and I’ve wanted to just come be in this space. It’s my favorite to be in.’ I’m often not sure whether I’m doing it right, but knowing we have that space for people feels amazing. It’s the little things.”