Have you met Caroline?
Caught in the cycle of doing your same job day in and day out, but too afraid to make the leap into doing what you love full time? Meet Caroline Bardwell, an avid poet, small business owner, and a member at Electric City Barn since January 2019. Caroline knows a thing or two about change, and she understands what it’s like to make the jump. She didn’t hate her job as an Environmental Geologist, but over time she decided “why not switch it up entirely?” Pivoting from geology to shop owner, Caroline jumped ship from the sciences to focus on the local art of Schenectady. Bringing her science mind to poetry, photography, and the curation of local goods and wares, Caroline has formed a unique brand, The Schenectady Trading Company, to show what it means to take pride in Schenectady.
Our Community Engagement Coordinator, Tim, caught up with Caroline for an interview that ranges from poetry to the flaws in our Education system:
TIM: For those who don’t know, who are you and what do you do?
CAROLINE: Good question. I am Caroline Bardwell, and I’m involved in a bunch of different things right now but I guess the simplest answer is I am a poet and photographer and small business owner. I’m opening the Schenectady Trading Company which is a local interest shop thats aimed to promote the talent and resources and heritage of Schenectady County and I am in the process of getting that storefront setup. I’m in the space and challenged with a monumental task of making my vision come to life.
TIM: What did you do for work before pursuing this current passion? In the past you’ve mentioned you were a geologist?
CAROLINE: Yeah, so for the last 18 years I have been working in the private sector as an Environmental Geologist dealing with remediation—land and soil and water contamination. It’s a great job, high paying, and I thought I would do it forever. But through a series of events and life changes, I reevaluated myself and my vision for the next 20 years and really felt compelled to dive into the changing economy and landscape of Schenectady and kind of put my spin on a for profit business that promotes the community as opposed to leaving it all for the non-profits, not-for-profits, and government agencies to carry the burden. So thats when this idea kind of came together. Essentially I went through some loss and change and needed a creative form of self expression to get through everything. Once I started tapping into that it just ripped my life open wide and now I’m a whole new me and its been great! I didn’t really have any [creative] outlets, which is why I am even more excited about a place like Electric City Barn because its sort-of, like, legitimizing the creative economy as having some cred’…you know?
TIM: Haha right, I agree. Ok, so tell me about The Schenectady Trading Company. What is it? When did you start it?
CAROLINE: So last year I started The Schenectady Trading Company in a retail cooperative in downtown Schenectady, called the Clinton Street Mercantile, where a few dozen different small businesses, makers, and creatives basically rent space in a larger store so that their products can get into marketplace without the risk of paying rent on your own store. This idea sort of formed while I was their. I started with my own photography and some different things, and tried some Schenectady souvenirs that were very well received. And it was all in line with what my long term vision was, and so thats really what came from that experience.
Now the mission is promoting local history, talent, and heritage. I mean we [Schenectady] get sort of—and Schenectady County itself—gets lost sometimes. It’s small in size compared to some of its neighbors, it has some statistics that are not in its favor, and it gets dwarfed, I think, a little bit in art culture economy by some of its neighbors. So my company and store sort of exists to just show what’s going on in this slice of the world. I’ll have some locally roasted coffee, local food, farm fresh produce, local groceries, hand made items, art books, cds of local bands—that sort of thing. A good mix! And then hopefully I’ll have some pop-up events, maybe small performances, a little bit of info on what’s going on in the community, local attractions. It’s basically my spin on what people should know if they move here or if they’re visiting, if you need to show somebody Schenectady in a weekend, or a day, to somebody traveling through. Maybe you’ve got a friend visiting from Philadelphia and you want to show them all Schenectady has, my place might be a quick stop on the agenda.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t know where to go for souvenirs. There’s things from all different places, so this is my attempt at doing the work to distill it all down. I just talked to somebody last week that had a sort of friend reunion, and he went out on a shopping trip to give them all local gifts. It sounded like he spent a lot of time and leg work to do that, so I said “Well, next that happens you know where to go!”
TIM: So how long have you had this idea, to make The Schenectady Trading Company your own small business?
CAROLINE: So I started working on this idea May of  but it didn’t have that name at the time, and I wasn’t thinking it would have food or grocery at the time either. So it’s evolved based on my experience in the marketplace, and I believe that I want to have a well rounded store. But I’ve really been talking to a lot of people and sort of refining this idea, so I think I named it and formed it in the fall, November 2018. I had approached the casino about selling my souvenirs and they were receptive of that, but in order to make it happen the Gaming Commission had to approve me as a supplier, so I had to do the paper work to be official. And this spring I formed a single member LLC, so its been a little bit of an evolution.
Certainly this idea wasn’t something I had been incubating for decades or anything like that. I sort of went zero-to-sixty pretty quickly, but I was very motivated because my heart changed. I was in a job that was fulfilling, that I thought I would do forever. But there was a change, and all of a sudden I wanted something different. And I’m still sort of fascinated by that in it of itself.
TIM: You host Poetry nights here at ECB, and I’ve heard a lot of your poetry which is very well written, deep, and intentional, while also being relatable. What inspires your poetry? What is it about poetry that keeps you writing more and more?
CAROLINE: Well, I started writing poetry to manage my grief. I lost my dad…he died, and my marriage was failing, and I just had a baby. So I was having a hard time…and I was working with a therapist who was helping me verbalize what I was going though. And I felt compelled to do something creative about it—I had some friends who were into poetry and it just sort of came out, like flooding out. I was suddenly really motivated to go and share it with like minded people, so I trotted on out and found myself some poetry open mics. I started making a local circuit, writing a lot, and I found I was pretty good at it. Poetry is sort of a brain teaser to me—it hits the science mind like a puzzle, and it also has its artistic side too. I also started doing some song writing, but I don’t play any instruments so that required some collaboration.
Poetry is a way to manage and explore my emotions. My faith is a big part of the process, and as a Christian I’m called to use my talents for the glory of the Lord, and I feel very compelled to do that. So I’ve been taking inventory of what my talents are and am I using them for the glory of the Lord, and I would say that I wasn’t before. There was a big spiritual transformation that happened during this time that I am very thankful for. So I’m on a new path and its been really interesting to see how it all comes together. This place, the [Electric City] Barn…its just amazing how things work. I start writing poetry and I kind of get out and around, then all of a sudden theres this new place that has stages and I can put on my own show. So now I’ve been gathering local talent and asking them to perform at my open mics.
TIM: Right, I’ve been to your open mics and they feel more intentional and curated than others.
CAROLINE: I suppose it is less an open mic, and more of a curated art exhibit. But it’s free and accessible and that’s what I really wanted.
You know how they always say “You’re a poet and you didn’t know it”? I didn’t know it! I didn’t know it…but it suits me. Everyone is most critical of their own art, and I’ve finally started to love my own work and I’m proud of it, and thats how I know I’m interested in pursuing this. When I started getting invited to be the featured poet at events, I decided to publish my own book. I had an exhibit at the Mabee Farm that was sort of a poetry and photography hybrid. and the book came out at the same so that was kind of cool, it gave me some credibility as an artist. I’m still trying to think of myself as an artist as apposed to a scientist. Its hard to think about how I can be both. You know how kids in school are taught that they’re either science and math minded, or arts and humanities minded?
TIM: It seems we’re always told as kids the two interests are mutually exclusive.
CAROLINE: Right, so I dropped art because I was pursuing an education in the sciences. I had skill in art as a child that I never developed because we’re all unfortunately taught that art is a hobby, but I want to start changing the conversation. Art can be a career, but its about figuring out the formula of how to pursue art in a financially sustainable way. Thats why I have this store, The Schenectady Trading Company. But the networking and access to resources that happens here at Electric City Barn is what helps one dream bigger. That’s why people respond to this place so well, because people can now give themselves permission to dream a little bit. Did you know you were in the business of sowing dreams?
TIM: I had never thought about it like that! So I know you’ve touched on it, but now I just need to somewhat selfishly ask: how has membership at ECB been beneficial to you and your business?
CAROLINE: Beyond everything else, what I’ve gotten most out of membership is the network support. This is a great place to bounce ideas off of other people. ECB gives you a good inroad into whats happening locally with connections and contacts. It’s less obvious, but this space isn’t just for those making a tangible product, there are a lot of different potential uses for this space. So everyone just needs to come in and explore, talk to staff and explore whether there is a fit, even if it isn’t obvious. This place is for everyone.
TIM: Well, I couldn’t have said that better myself.
Check out Caroline’s store, The Schenectady Trading Company at 609 Union in Downtown Schenectady, or look for her branded and curated goods around Schenectady at the Landing Hotel, the Union College Bookstore, and the Clinton Street Mercantile. Also check out her book of poetry, On and Off the Trail: A Collection of Poetry and Photography, available at all her store locations and online at TroyBookMakers.com.