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Sonoma gallery owner Jennifer Edwards, founder of The Passdoor, puts 25 years of business experience to work

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Five years ago, Jennifer Edwards spent her lunch breaks in a Cheesecake Factory in Corte Madera, secretly planning her eventual escape from the corporate world.

She’d been stashing away every dollar she earned to launch a fine art gallery. Over a hamburger, salad and cappuccino, Edwards launched The Passdoor from her iPhone, negotiating her lease, researching local artists and buying unique art and home decor pieces from Europe.

“I started the business on my lunch breaks,” Edwards said. “I think it was two weeks before the gallery … was ready to open. I had given my notice and I left and just opened it up.”

Edwards, now 56, spent years working as a district manager for big retailers like The Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. In the late 1990s, the Indiana native headed Pottery Barn’s seven-store district in Chicago, where she was responsible for $38 million in annual sales, expertly leading and grooming management teams and launching 25,000-square-foot flagship stores every four months.

By the time Edwards wanted to open a 400-square-foot gallery at The Barlow in 2014, she knew everything she needed to know to make it work.

The Passdoor quickly outgrew that spot, and last October Edwards relocated her gallery to a 2,000-square-foot space in Sonoma Plaza’s Mercato Shopping District.

When Edwards left her high-rise apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago nearly 20 years ago, she moved to a country home on Trinity Road in the Mayacamas Mountains, east of Glen Ellen. Going back to Sonoma Valley felt “like coming home,” she said, and her business has thrived there.

Those who know Edwards say she has a unique blend of business savvy and creativity.

“Jennifer has equal skills on parallel tracks — a remarkable eye for artistic and creative talent and a business acumen that’s born of experience and instinct,” said Kristen Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma, a division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

“That makes her uniquely equipped to run a business like The Passdoor gallery,” Madsen said.

Edwards has home decor and design in her blood. She got her first exposure to home decor and furnishing through her mother, who owned a furniture store in Evansville, Indiana.

By the age of 19, she had become a store manager of a national retailer. That led to a long career as a district manager for major retail businesses across the country.

Her experience gave Edwards the knowledge she needed to run a business, from keeping a close eye on the bottom line and controlling expenses to producing accurate profit and loss statements.

“Running a business, especially multi-store businesses, you’ve got to have a very sharp business acumen, you’ve got to be able to run numbers, you’ve got to be able to understand the bottom line and profit and loss statements,” Edwards said.

But she said the most rewarding experience during her 26 years in business management was putting together and training management teams, helping young sales associates become store managers in just a few years.

“That’s what always kept me motivated, was developing the talent and the teams,” she said.

Edwards left her job at Pottery Barn in Chicago and moved to Glen Ellen, in part to “slow down” and focus on her personal life. She said she was in her late 30s, didn’t have kids and wasn’t married. “It was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, something is missing,’ ” she said.

She went on to work as a district manager for The Gap and later Smith & Hawken. Commuting several hours a day to the Bay Area from her home on Trinity Road, Edwards began taking stock of her life.

“It was just such a burnout, living in the country and commuting in the Bay Area. I said, ‘This has to stop,’ ” she recalled. “I could never do it again.”

After she quit the corporate world, Edwards spent four months on a “little personal project” where she limited herself to buying and doing things within a 10-mile radius of where she lived.

“That’s when I really started to get to know our little community,” she said. “I didn’t even know anybody in Sonoma, because every morning I would get up and drive to the city or drive all over and come back home and get up and do it again.”

When she first opened The Passdoor gallery at The Barlow, the business was centered around original iconic design, pieces created between 1930 and the 1980s and still under production.

The gallery’s name is derived from the architectural term “pass door,” which refers to a small door set into a larger door, such as industrial metal roll-up doors or some garage doors. Edwards described The Passdoor as a “small entrance into the vast world of creative art and design.”

The principal ideas behind every piece in the shop are quality and originality, as well as functionality. That’s one of the reasons she specializes in high-quality Scandinavian, German and English designs.

Edwards said so much of today’s home furnishings and decor is mass produced and of an extremely low quality. It’s the kind of “stuff” that usually ends up in a garage sale or thrift store.

She said she wants to sell “tomorrow’s heirlooms,” decorative pieces or furnishings that will pass from one generation to another.

Beyond her European focus is a dedication to local artists, and The Passdoor currently represents more than 14 artists and artisans in Northern California.

That includes sculptors, painters and textile, furniture and jewelry makers.

In fact, Edwards and her husband, Matt Meeker, a mechanical engineer at Keysight Technologies, recently became metalsmiths and launched their own line of mostly silver jewelry called Tracy Ralph. The line is selling well, she said.

“There were several months where we sold enough Tracy Ralph jewelry to pay the rent at The Barlow,” she said.

The location at Sonoma Plaza is exactly what Edwards was looking for, as the store grew to the next level. Laura Bennett, director of Lisa Kristine Gallery, which is located next door to The Passdoor, agreed.

Bennett said the Lisa Kristine Gallery is the photographer’s exclusive showcase gallery and there was some concern about whether the next tenant would be a fit. She said she was familiar with The Passdoor when it was at The Barlow and was thrilled to find out it would be her neighbor.

“I knew her vision and her merchandise would compliment our gallery,” Bennett said. “It’s like a family, it’s very important to all of us to have someone here who shares our same motivation.”

Edwards said sales have greatly increased since moving to Sonoma.

“We’re doing four to five times the sales volume in Sonoma,” she said, without revealing sales figures.

She negotiated options in her lease to stay at the location for 15 years. Much of her business comes from foot traffic, although she developed a mailing list of about 2,000 clients by the time she moved to Sonoma.

“I compete with the Internet big time, as a brick and mortar (business), so you can’t have something that you can go to Amazon and get,” she said. “We built our reputation on having things that you can’t find anywhere else.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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