MacNair’s Country Acres, a 260-acre oasis of pastures, stables and paddocks, is a little more than a mile from Tryon Road, one of Raleigh’s busiest thoroughfares. At the end of the farm’s winding dirt driveway sits a beige stucco and wood frame building that houses M&M Tack Shop.
“It is a piece of heaven here,” said Michele Karwoski, who started the tack shop 23 years ago after moving to Raleigh from Cape Cod, Mass., where she worked as a real estate appraiser.
M&M Tack Shop caters to English riders, serving those who compete in dressage and other competitive events and those who ride for pleasure.
The shop buys products from more than 30 vendors and sells clothing, helmets, boots and accessories for riders.
It also sells saddles, blankets, bridles, girths and other horse tack.
Karwoski, 58, grew up in Ridgefield, Conn., riding horses in a rural community within an hour’s drive from New York City.
A graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in psychology, she moved to Cape Cod to start her appraisal business after graduating from college.
Karwoski’s life changed in 1991 when she visited a friend in Smithfield and got her first taste of North Carolina.
She loved the weather and the cost of living, and she liked having access to a rural lifestyle along with the conveniences the city offered.
Five weeks after visiting, she had closed her appraisal business, packed up her horse, dog, two cats and all her belongings and moved to Raleigh. She discovered MacNair’s Country Acres, an equestrian facility, in the Yellow Pages.
Karowski initially sold pet supplies at the Raleigh Flea Market. She knew McNair’s Country Acres sold a small variety of equestrian supplies and accessories out of a tiny log cabin on the property, and convinced the late owner, Caroline MacNair Carl, to let her take over the business.
Karowski bought the inventory, turned the small business into a full-service tack shop and moved into her current 2,000-square-foot building. Sales financed her growth. The business celebrated its 23rd anniversary in December.
In 1994, Karwoski started training to be a professional saddle fitter. She apprenticed with David Young, master saddler from South Carolina, and received her certification as a Qualified Saddle Fitter from the British Society of Master Saddlers in 2002. She and an employee, Mary Bowles, also a certified saddle fitter, regularly travel to England for updates on the latest saddle improvements and trends.
Karwoski has six employees, including Bowles. She caters to a niche market of competitive English riders. Business has its ups and downs that mirror the greater economy as showing horses is an expensive activity. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar stores face more competition from online equestrian marketplaces.
“It’s a tough business,” she said. “But I love my customers. I love my staff, and I love what I do.”
She banks on customer relationships and markets her products and services through word of mouth, ads in equestrian magazines and other publications catering to the horse and riding industry. She manages an online marketplace, is active on social media and does direct marketing through email.
Traveling to horse shows is one way she keeps her business directly in front of customers.
On a busy Wednesday morning in March, Karwoski was loading riding apparel, accessories and other merchandise into a large trailer that would serve as a mobile tack shop at the March Magic Dressage Show in Williamston, about 100 miles east of Raleigh.
Since 2008, she has also offered free educational seminars to the public.
“The seminars helped us survive the recession,” she said. “I had to do what I could to keep customers walking in the door.”
Teri Saylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet her @terisaylor.