“Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.”
Henry Fielding’s rumination on the eternal popularity of gossip rings as true today as it did in 1728 when his play “Love in Several Masques” was produced. The play only ran for four nights and would have been long forgotten if not for the “love and scandal” line.
Ten years ago this month when I decided to open a fashion boutique in Elkin, it seemed to speak perfectly of life in a small town. Everybody knew a great deal about everybody else’s business, and though most folks preferred their tea iced rather than hot, they liked it very sweet indeed. And along with huge doses of actual sugar, tales of love and scandal were among the most popular items under discussion while copious amounts of very sweet, very cold tea were being consumed.
So, what could be a better name for a boutique than “Love and Scandal,” thought 2007 me. It is now unclear to me as to why I thought the town was overrun with literary fashionistas who would be amused by the clever wordplay.
My sister Angela partnered with me on the venture — we both had fashion experience, her low-end experience nicely balanced mine on the high end — and it took a while to convince her on the name. She had been serving Kmart customers well for her whole life, and she knew their tastes and she was not sure about “Love and Scandal.” She thought it sounded like a new-age sex shop.
I had been serving the needs of the Madison Avenue customer for even longer. She claimed her experience was more valuable to our current venture, and she was right. But I argued our whole game was aspirational. We were going to make Kmart customers feel like they were shopping Madison Avenue. She ultimately relented.
On a location, we totally agreed. The oldest building on Main Street was up for rent. The building was older than Main Street itself. It had been on Front Street before Main Street existed and was the office for the Elkin Mill on the Big Elkin Creek that predated the big Chatham mill. In the century and a half since that time, the building had housed a ticket office for a railway that never materialized, the DMV, the public library, a massage therapist and a dozen other things I can’t remember. And it was Carpenter Gothic. It had personality and it was about to get even more.
So, as you might imagine, interest began to run high among the tasteful historic society types as we painted the exterior doors and window shutters shocking pink and hung ropes of pink and white Japanese lanterns that were two feet in diameter all along the Victorian gables of the tiny building.
But if the tasteful types were buzzing about the exterior, we couldn’t wait for them to get a gander at the interior. It looked as if Betsey Johnson and Patricia Field took over a New Orleans cathouse and spruced it up under the influence of a great deal of acid.
The extensive moldings were golded. Golding, a technique we invented, is far less time- and dollar-intensive than gilding. Gilding requires hundreds of sheets of actual 24 karat gold leaf that is meticulously applied with glue made from dead cow hides or something like that. Golding is simply sponging on gold acrylic craft paint that we bought by the sackful from Walmart. It framed the walls upholstered in pink leopard quite nicely.
By our powers combined, Angela and I stocked the store with an insane array of goods. We drove her SUV to New York and filled it with all manor of objects of desire; Bloomingdales closeout merch that we scavenged on the Williamsburg waterfront, designer swag from a guy in the garment center who never, ever took off his mirrored sunglasses, jewelry from a gal Angela went to Parsons with that was being used by all the Hollywood stylists for the red carpet, and Buddhas purchased from a pushcart in Chinatown while we were double-parked.
Sunglass guy even gave us a US exclusive on a line of beautiful Italian sportswear that he claimed was made in the same factory as Armani. And I believed him. It was exquisite. I would probably also have believed him if he said it was made using fabric nicked from Armani. But thankfully, he didn’t say that. Because then we couldn’t have bought it. That would have been wrong.
At our invitation-only opening night, we sold the crap out of some merch to the friends and acquaintances we were plying with the finest mid-level California champagne our friend Chris could provide at our price point from his next-door wine shop.
Surprisingly, it took a while for word to get back to me that the prevailing word on the street was that the boutique was merely a front for a sex shop in the back room where only invited guests were allowed to browse. Angela never stopped saying “I told you so” until the day she died. Our parents were mortified. Neither of them ever set foot in the store.
One woman for whom I had done custom work begged me to be admitted to the inner sanctum and got really angry when I insisted there was no back room. Which there was not.
Of course, our timing could not have been worse with the venture. The world economy basically crashed the morning after our grand opening. But we hung in there for a couple of years hoping things would improve. Which they did not.
Customers who bought so many lacy panties we joked they were throwing them away and buying new ones began to wash their panties. That’s when we knew the jig was up.
After it was all over, everyone concerned agreed we should have had a sex shop in the back room.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.