While the year 2020 might not have seemed like the best time to open a new business, Kari Smith Johnston, Wittenberg class of 2005 and owner of the Rose City Boutique, felt it was her destiny.
Just a stone’s throw from campus, Johnston opened her boutique at 115 E. Ward Street on Nov. 5. Rose City Boutique features more than 15 vendors specializing in everything from clothing, jewelry, and home décor to artisan items, do-it-yourself supplies, and more, coming together for an eclectic array of merchandise.
“In a sense, it seems crazy to move into the brick-and-mortar retail industry during a global pandemic that is so hard on small businesses, but there are three reasons I did,” said Johnston, a native of Springfield who graduated with a degree in sociology. “First, I figured if I could succeed this year, there would be nowhere to go but up. Second, I sense a desire from communities across the country to support small businesses. Lastly, and most importantly, I feel like my community needs more safe, calm places to shop. I find shopping so stressful these days from the crowds to the supply chains being so out of whack and the selections limited. I love that folks can come find beautiful things here.”
With the shopping area being about 1,500 square feet, separated between a foyer, two smaller rooms, and a showroom, Johnston says, “It's difficult to not be near other people, but, of course, we are diligent in our sanitizing protocols and social distancing. We also provide an elevated level of customer service that's hard to find in retail these days. Every time I see someone come through the doors, I smile, and they visibly relax, and I know I made the right decision. It’s seeing my shoppers happy that brings me so much joy.”
The boutique is open Thursday and Friday from noon to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. The shop is closed Monday through Wednesday.
“With each of their business names on display throughout the building, you can visually see how many small businesses you're supporting by shopping here,” Johnston added. “We have women and little girls' clothing and outerwear, handmade jewelry, pottery, home decor including things like pillows, wreaths and stained glass, art, goat milk soaps and balms, DIY supplies, cookies, and more. Since so much of it is done by our artisans, many of our items are one-of-a kind, and different things are in the store all the time. We have people already who come by weekly since there are always new items.”
While being the owner of a boutique wasn’t the career path she thought she would pursue, Johnston is happy with her decision.
“When I graduated from Wittenberg, my goal was to be a social worker, but I soon found that I needed additional certifications to do that,” said Johnston, a member of Kappa Delta, the Wittenberg Choir, and a student worker in University Communications during her time at Wittenberg. “While I figured out my path, I took an entry-level job doing outbound calls at a local corporation and fell in love with the business. I spent 14 years at that company working in different departments and moving through the ranks to call center operations management. I felt the itch to branch out earlier this year and moved to another company in a similar role and industry. But once I opened the store, I realized to do it right, I needed to do it full time. I then left that organization to be a full-time shopkeeper.”
As it turned out, Johnston found that opening the boutique was destiny and not decision. For the past year she has sold a line of paints, painted furniture, and conducted workshops at Village Chic/Village Cup in South Charleston. And while she was happy being a vendor, she noticed in July that a former co-worker's husband had his business building up for sale.
“I asked her about it, but I had no interest in purchasing it – I only brought it up because they had been in business for decades, and I was curious about the direction they were heading next. However, her husband invited me to come check it out,” Johnston said. “I told him I'd stop over and see it, but that I was not in a position to purchase. When I walked in the doors, I fell in love with the place. The house was built in 1902, was full of character, and well maintained with an addition on the back that has skylights filling the space with natural light. I could picture a shop there, but had no idea how I would make that happen. That weekend, I sat down with the owner of Village Chic and by the end of the conversation, we had come up with a business plan. She offered her retail experience and to reach out to her vendors to ask if they would like to participate. One after another agreed.”
The last catch for Johnston was coming up with a down payment for the building. She sold her car and brainstormed ways to come up with the rest of the funds.
“I needed $35,000,” Johnston explained. “One day, I was going through my mail pile and came across a letter that said that due to my tenure at my previous corporation I had been grandfathered into a pension program that I could opt to cash out. The amount listed, less taxes, was EXACTLY the rest of the money I needed to put a down payment on the building. That's when I knew it was fate.”
Johnston enjoys the social aspect of her new career and its proximity to Wittenberg, where she cherishes her college days immensely.
“I loved everything about my time at Wittenberg,” she said. “I chose it after I visited some friends on campus when I was in high school, and it just felt like home. Though it was in my hometown, campus itself is its own world — I loved that I was close by if I needed my family, but could disappear into campus life the majority of the time. Those four years were challenging to me personally in many ways — that window of time is so formative. I don't think you realize the things about Wittenberg that are going to have the biggest impact on your life until much later. At the time, living on campus made a huge impact on my bridge into adulthood. Now, I realize how much it opened my perspective to meet people from around the world, people with so many life experiences that were different than my own. I realize how formative it was to learn critical thinking skills and how beneficial it has been to my career to go to a writing-intensive school.”