“Can you write, ‘Time to veg out on some chicken wings’ on a balloon?” asks a customer in East Nashville’s Harlan Ruby gift shop, sheepishly approaching the register with eyebrows raised and fingers crossed.
A strange request to be sure, but the staff doesn’t even blink. She’s come to the right place.
Decked out in bright splashes of color and a dump-truck load of glitter, Harlan Ruby is slowly becoming Nashville’s first and last stop on any search for quirky-cool—a curated jumble of party supplies, home goods, kitschy statement pieces, and custom balloons . . . all of which seem to combine femininity with a mischievous sense of humor.
In fact, making a giant balloon that reads “Time to veg out on some chicken wings” in hand-lettered calligraphy is just the kind of off-the-wall fun Sunny Becks and her two daughters, Fiona Flaherty and ten-year-old Prudence Crumpton, do best.
We have so many customers walk in who are like, ‘This is the most magical place on earth. This is what the inside of my head looks like,’” says Flaherty, taking a break with her mom and sister after a very busy Valentine’s Day. “Those are the kinds of praises we get, and we just want to take that and sprinkle it all over.”
Housed on Woodland Street near East Park, Harlan Ruby is actually one of three companies born in 2016 out of Becks’ first oddball business—the online hula-hoop purveyor Hoop Supplies. That charming creation is still up and spinning, but it was always Becks’ dream to expand her scope and open a physical shop. So when eldest daughter Flaherty returned home from college with a degree in fashion design, they did just that.
But what started as a collection of homemade and hand-illustrated goodies has morphed into something more. Based on Flaherty’s vision of spreading “sparkle and joy and happiness wherever we can,” Harlan Ruby now features a wide assortment of Pinterest-able brands and caters to a clientele that ranges from Belle Meade moms to working-class dads, country stars, and everyone in between.
“We started really searching for designers who were either female-based or had a weird sense of humor,” Becks explains. “Thinking outside the box, that’s what really spoke to us.”
Indeed, the shop is packed with delightfully clever trinkets—think Spencer’s Gifts with a master’s degree, and you’re on the right track.
Pot holders featuring Trump and Hillary photoshopped into a stained-glass portrait of Mary and baby Jesus (you’ll have to guess which is which) sit next to a rack of off-color dish towels and novelty socks. They’re surrounded by bath bombs, jewelry, and every sparkly thing needed to throw the best-decorated shindig your friends have ever seen—including the city’s most buzzed-about balloons.
Through the shop’s offshoot balloon company, Vroom Vroom Balloon, the family has become Nashville’s go-to purveyor of the unlikely (but Instagram-ready) party favors. Speciality balloons have surged in popularity and are fast becoming their signature business.
Becks and Flaherty keep Vroom Vroom technically separate from Harlan Ruby so they can partner with other local retailers without competitive concern, but the two brands are different sides of the same coin. On top of selling fabulous party packages and hand-lettering anything a customer wants, they also do whimsical, mind-boggling balloon installations and creative workshops, and one thing is for sure—these aren’t the boring old balloons of your childhood.
“It’s boutique and bespoke balloons,” Flaherty explains, adding that the variations of size, material, and design are almost limitless. “We do a lot of customization, and that really sets us apart from everybody else.”
At this point “everybody else” is basically Kroger and Party City, but Vroom Vroom Balloon is operating on a totally different wavelength.
“I think balloons have been [associated with] a cheesy atmosphere,” Becks says. “We focus mostly on color and aesthetic. If you come in for one balloon, we want it to look just as cute as if you were leaving with a whole bundle of fifty. We want it to have a cute clip and a cute bow, and we want you to feel good walking out.”
Back in December 2017, Becks and Flaherty were feeling lukewarm on the balloon idea. But after designing a massive install for Belmont Boulevard’s Proper Bagel, Vroom Vroom’s social media accounts exploded.
“Our following tripled in one week,” Flaherty says. “All of a sudden wedding planners and event planners were calling us, and everyone was flooding our inbox with ‘I want to do that for my baby shower. I want to do that for my birthday.’ All of a sudden we were ‘the people who do balloons,’ and it hasn’t been the same since.”
Over-the-top birthday parties, unicorn-filled wedding rehearsals, glitzy grand openings, and more are now everyday occurrences, with eccentric-gift givers seeking them out and celebrities like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris lining up to get their balloon on.
But as nice as the swell of success has been, it’s working together as a family that means the most to Becks and her brood.
“I haven’t not looked forward to going to my space for the past ten years,” she says. “And I can tell you there were plenty of times in the corporate world where I dreaded going in.”
As a former medical secretary and office manager, Becks says her family’s new “normal” is simply a better way of life—and Flaherty adds that it makes business sense too.
“When you can understand someone’s headspace that is your business partner and really get them on every level, I think it’s easier for you to be there for them where they need you to be,” she says. “Like, somehow we’re these magical puzzle pieces that perfectly fit together.”
Meanwhile, the youngest generation of the family is also getting in on the fun. Harlan Ruby and Vroom Vroom Balloon are Becks and Flaherty’s ventures, but the Hankabee Button Company? That is the work of ten-year-old Crumpton.
While watching her mom and oldest sister get their businesses off the ground, Crumpton was taking note. She started accepting orders for cute custom buttons and magnets in the first grade—making her one of the youngest business owners in Nashville.
“It’s kind of fun to be in charge,” says a wise-beyond-her-years Crumpton, who just set a goal of making two thousand buttons a month. “I love being with them at the shop because I can learn new things.”
But Becks isn’t necessarily concerned with teaching the girls to follow in her footsteps. She just wants to prepare them for the road ahead. Knowing full well that Crumpton may not be able to bank on a stable company job in the emerging “gig economy”—and that her quality of life may be better without one—she figures the lessons Crumpton will learn while running Hankabee will be invaluable.
“I think what makes me feel better is to know she’s creating something for her future,” Becks says. “I want her to know that she has options in life. Whether the button company goes for a little time or a long time, she knows she has the power. She can figure out resources and find people to help her, that kind of thing.”
As the day comes to a close, another customer strides into the shop—this time with a frantic look about her. “Is it possible to make this button with a yin-yang on it before 11 a.m. tomorrow?” she asks.
There’s a make-your-own button station in the corner, Becks explains, or Fiona will design one and Prudence can put it together right now for about $25. (Without the design fee, buttons run between $25 and $60 for a 25-pack, depending on size and style.)
Taking their unconventional business model into account, Becks says she’s not sure where her family’s creative passions will lead from here. But she does know two things without a doubt—they’ll take the journey together, and Nashville will always be home.
“I just want to be a part of Nashville’s celebration and happiness and creativity,” Becks says. “Somebody asked me at a dinner the other night, they were like, ‘Oh, balloons, that’s so odd. Where are you gonna go from there?’ And I said, ‘Dude, I just came from hula hoops to balloons, I have no idea.’”
Harlan Ruby is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.