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Charlotte’s ‘shabby chic’ specialists: These entrepreneurs rescue, repurpose, resell

By Greg Lacour
Correspondent

More Information

  • PHOTOS: Shabby chic at The Rusty Rabbit
  • Shabby chic retailers

    Here is a partial list of Charlotte-area boutiques specializing in “shabby chic.”

    The Boulevard at South End

    1440 S. Tryon St., South End

    980-219-7526

    www.blvdatsouthend.com

    Owners: Jennifer Branham, Carmen Ellis, Angie Regan

    Gifts, jewelry, repurposed furniture, other items sold by local vendors.

    Rusty Rabbit Design

    2902 N. Davidson St., NoDa

    704-706-9503

    www.rustyrabbitdesign.com

    Owner: Shameem Dockins

    Mainly antique furniture, some clothes, handcrafted soaps and candles, other items.

    Bebe Gallini’s Inc.

    19725 Oak St., Suite 1, Cornelius

    704-894-0096

    www.bebegallinis.com

    Owners: Carole May, Beth Phillips

    “Lifestyle store” that sells mainly used clothes and furniture.



“Shabby chic,” interior designers’ use of rescued and repurposed antique home furnishings, has been around since the 1980s – as both fashion and retail segment. But since the recession, and increasingly in Charlotte, it’s taken on new energy and adherents.

Salvaging a worn walnut chest of drawers from the side of the road, refinishing it and either selling or using it doesn’t just fulfill a trend in interior decoration.

It saves money. It meshes with emergent trends in sustainability and environmental consciousness. It merges with a movement toward reuse fueled by Pinterest and HGTV, which place high value not on the shiny and new but the weathered and reborn.

And in Charlotte and other places, shabby chic is serving another important purpose: giving female entrepreneurs an outlet for creativity, commerce, even companionship.

At least five such businesses have opened in or near Charlotte in recent years, owned and operated by women and selling everything from artwork to jewelry. They exchange tips, goods and customers and tend to use vendors they know personally, many of them local.

It’s a tight circle that operates mainly within its own bounds, like a small, organic merchants association bound by common interest instead of geography.

“All of these businesses have this real sense of camaraderie, and we have different enough skill sets and inventory that we don’t feel like we’re in direct competition,” said Shameem Dockins, who in May opened her own shop, Rusty Rabbit Design, in NoDa. “So I send people their way, and they send people my way. You definitely don’t feel like you’re going it alone.”

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in late June, Dockins showed off her inventory: antique items collected from all over and converted to any use you could imagine: – a late 19th-century trundle bed from a salvage yard converted into a coffee table; wine glass racks made from recycled scrap lumber; handmade candles in reusable ceramic pots; a set of four “Mad Men-esque” 1960s-era cocktail tumblers (“There were six,” Dockins said, “and I accidentally broke two”).

Reuse represents something more authentic and permanent to her than the mass-produced, near-disposable particle board items found at big-box stores. “You learn to appreciate: ‘OK, this might have a chip in it, but the chip is cool,’” she said. “Our grandparents knew that.”

The Rusty Rabbit sells items Dockins and her fiance, John Ravelli, have salvaged from scrap yards, roadsides, abandoned homes. They’re all hers. She paints and makes hand-crafted tables, too, which are on display at the Smelly Cat Coffeehouse in NoDa. Other items of hers are on sale at places like The Boulevard at South End on South Tryon Street, another business in the Charlotte shabby chic circle.

The Boulevard looks and smells similar to the Rusty Rabbit – scented candles make all these places smell wonderful – but operates on a different model. The three owners – Jennifer Branham, Carmen Ellis and Angie Regan – sublease space to about 40 vendors who peddle their wares, a mix of clothes, jewelry, furniture and other items. Nearly all are women, and the vast majority are local, Branham said.

A working concept

“It’s kind of why this concept works,” she said. “So many people want to sell their crafts but don’t have the time or energy to do it.” In return for space and help with marketing and merchandising, The Boulevard’s three owners earn rent and a percentage of each sale.

One of the reasons why this kind of retail business works so well for women is its flexibility, which the owners of The Boulevard, all mothers, take full advantage of. “You’ve got a lot of stay-at-home moms looking for a creative outlet,” said Branham, a 39-year-old former Realtor in Florida who had to scale back with the birth of her daughter, now 5. “This gives them the ability to earn an income while still staying at home a lot with the kids.”

Among the local movement’s pioneers are Carole May and Beth Phillips, who founded Bebe Gallini’s (the name comes from an old episode of “The Brady Bunch”) in a cavernous section of an old cotton mill in 2004. At the time, May said, there were consignment shops and the like in the Charlotte area but nothing like “shabby chic” as retail. But since the recession, she said, it’s boomed.

Much collaboration

“There are a lot more women going into business, and the economy is improving,” May said. “I think it’s kind of a unique situation. It’s OK for me to give a vendor to somebody when they’re an hour across town. It’s not a threat to me.”

Ellis and Regan of The Boulevard actually got their start at Bebe Gallini’s and still have an arrangement with May; they buy clothes to sell at The Boulevard but leave half for May to sell on consignment.

It’s more collaborative than cutthroat, and the cooperation gives each owner advantages they wouldn’t have in a more competitive environment.

“I think women talk and share more information than men,” May said. “We have a lot more resources at our disposal by sharing, and that benefits everybody.”

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