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A downtown success story, knock on wood

April 05, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Happy endings for new downtown Hagerstown retailers are rare. Someone with a knack for cooking opens a restaurant, without enough money in the bank to carry it through the rainy week when no one goes out for lunch.

Someone else opens a store selling crafts or novelties, though there are plenty of those in business already. They hang on until they can't anymore. Then they close, with only their name remaining on the front window to remind passers-by of what they tried to do.

No sad stories, thank goodness, for Shana Ringer, who opened The Boutique at 100 N. Potomac St. seven months ago. I interviewed the new business owner late last year and promised to return after Christmas to see how her ladies' wear shop was doing.

As we sat and talked in the main showroom, which overlooks the intersection of Potomac and Franklin streets, Ringer seemed more relaxed than she did previously. During our talk, however, she occasionally raps her knuckle on the arm of her antique oak chair and says "knock wood," apparently to dispel any notion that she's taking what success she's had for granted.

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Ringer was better prepared than most to open a business. She'd worked more than 20 years in retail, including seven years at Lena Darner's dress shop across the street. She knew it would take two or three years for the business to really get established and that much of the load would be on her.

She's still working six days a week, although her daughter Marissa, an 18-year-old senior at Williamsport High School, has begun taking more of an interest, doing payroll and window displays even though Ringer says her daughter has wanted to be a doctor "since forever." Her sister, Kendra Greenlea, rounds out the staff.

Asked how business has been so far, Ringer smiled and said, "So far, so good, knock wood."

She said that she exceeded all her expectations, a success she attributes to her customers, who tell other people about her shop and who come back and tell her that they've been seeing her things "all over town."

The other key to her success is that there are other downtown dress shops clustered nearby - Lena Darner and The Figurehead II. While each shop has its own style, Ringer said it's not uncommon for a group of ladies to visit all of them, then eat lunch downtown.

To most men, fashion is a mystery, in part because for guys, a bold fashion statement usually involves a new tie. For me, deciding what ladies' fashions would sell in Hagerstown would be like trying to read tea leaves to foretell the future. But Ringer said she didn't make the mistake of falling in love with any style that her customers hated.

"I just try to buy pretty things, some that are dressy, some that are casual and some that are evening wear," she said.

This past winter, it was jackets that did well. She showed me one waist-length number adorned with embroidery and sparkly threads. With a shell top and a dress, it could be dressy, she said, but it could also go well with a turtleneck and nice slacks. Tops with a variety of necklines also did well, she said.

So well that she's increased her budget "a little bit" to add more merchandise, which will be less of a problem when she's able to establish credit with more suppliers.

"That's my biggest thing now, establishing credit." Some of the smaller (makers) will give me "net terms," which she explained means she must pay within 30 days.

She said she makes sure to pay others who've extended credit on time, because they've done her the favor of trusting her.

"I make sure I get that check in the mail 10 days before the bill is due," she said.

There were no real disasters and no real surprises, though in answer to a question, she said that occasionally someone will come in and purchase $1,000 worth of merchandise at one time.

The worst thing so far has been the winter weather, when the ice and snow just seemed to last forever, she said.

The Boutique has also participated in the city government's "Thursday Night Out" program, in which stores and restaurants stay open from 5 to 9 p.m., with some featuring special deals. The next one is Thursday, April 8 and will feature appearances by the Easter Bunny, according to Karen Giffin, the city government's community relations specialist.

"It's given me an evening, which I knew I had to have," Ringer said, adding that the city government has worked very well on events and promotions.

Asked what's on tap, fashion-wise, for spring, Ringer said it won't be dull.

"Bright colors are in right now, because it's been a long drab winter," she said.

As for where she and her business will be five years from now, she smiled and said, "Right here, knock wood."

If you'd like to check out the shop, it's open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to "3-ish," Ringer said. The store is closed on Sunday.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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