A historic building now houses the Rusty Willow Boutique
Photos by Kara Thorpe
The Rusty Willow is the culmination of a dream of Sonya Pancione, an Amissville resident who gave up her career as a senior paralegal for a criminal law firm to be a stay at home mom to her four children. Then in the past couple of years, things started evolving; her children were growing up, and she was trying to figure out what to do with the second half of her life. The genesis of the idea for Rusty Willow came in the deep South. “I was visiting my grandmother in Baton Rouge, and we happened on a little boutique in Mississippi. It had a very southern glam, rustic feel to it and I fell in love with the entire concept. I came home, told my husband, ‘I know what I’m going to do,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Tell us about your location.
We originally looked at Davis Street in Culpeper, but I just didn’t feel a lot peace about it, so one day we were sitting at Carousel, my daughter and I, and the realtor was hanging up the sign. And my daughter said, “You know, that would make a great place,” and we checked it out. It was a complete disaster, holes in the ceiling, just a mess. We invested about $25,000 to get the place in shape to where we could move in. The building’s pretty old, it was built in 1946, and has housed a lot of different businesses since then. It used to be the Huntsman Restaurant, and I have older ladies who will come in to shop and tell me how they would come in here and get a bloody mary and listen to a band. It was the only place around where you could get a good bloody mary. So the stories are cool that people tell me here in Warrenton. I love the local history of the building.
How did you achieve this great interior? How would you describe your decor?
Gosh how would I describe it? Rustic? I don’t know, I just decorate by feel; if I love something, I put it in. I love bling, I love refurbished, I love things that I’m inspired by. I didn’t want this to be a store where all the clothes were on racks, I wanted to be more creative than that. So I found some rustic ladders, and my husband said, “What are you going to do with them?” and I said, “I’m going to hang clothes on them.” So little by little all the clothing racks are going…I’m moving them out and bringing in different pieces to take their place.
The whole store is actually built around this sofa. It’s called my comfort couch. It was my grandmother’s, and she loved turquoise. We put it in and built the whole store around it. And it will never leave. People come in just to see it. I had a gentleman offer me $10,000 for this couch, but I turned him down. My husband said I was crazy. But my grandmother was the root of my whole life. Everything goes back to her as the center. Everything. My love for the Lord, my love of fashion, my love of life, my energy, it all goes back to her. She’s still around, in Louisiana, and she’s seen the shop by Facetime, and she loves it.
How would you describe your clothing at Rusty Willow?
A little bit of boho, a little flowy. We have a lot of unique pieces. I hand-pick every piece in the store. I go to several markets, in Vegas, Atlanta, New York, and Birmingham to buy for the store. I don’t necessarily stick myself in a box; If I like something, I buy it. I have several brands that are favorites. Umgee, She and Sky, and Carol Christian. We also love Flying Tomato, and their sister company called Jealous Tomato. I try to have something for everyone. You can imagine all the FHS kids walking over and wanting fun, trendy, young girl clothes. We have them. I have women who want lunch dresses, something cute to wear for going out to lunch with their girlfriends or going to a winery, we have it. If you need something to wear to a wedding, we have it. Going to Gold Cup? We have it. My hope is that everyone who walks in here will be able to find something for themselves, whether you tend toward conservative or wild and crazy. I never want to hear someone in their 70s coming in and saying, “Oh these clothes are too young for me. Nothing is too young. I had a lady who was 75 years old come in the other day and buy a blouse. It was just the coolest thing.
I really listen to my clients, I have requests all the time, and I reach out and try to find what people want because I want people to stay local. We carry size small and petite to 3x. That is a huge market, and I want to give the curvy girls a choice. And curvy doesn’t necessarily mean plus. There are a lot of women who are extra large who have a 30 inch waist. So we don’t call it plus, we call it curvaceous.
Tell me about your relationship with your customers.
I love my job. I have women come in and literally say, “Dress me.” I try to encourage women to think a little bit outside the box, so I push them just a little while staying in their comfort zone. I never ever want someone to leave this store second guessing an item that they’ve purchased. I want them to prance out the door saying, “Look what I got, I cannot wait to wear this!” I like being able to really spend time with my customers and get to know them and develop relationships. My husband says “You should have named the shop My Girlfriends’ Closet, because people come in and you know them, and their kids, and you know that their daughter went to college and you’ve already got items in the daughter’s school’s colors for them.” And that’s the kind of business I want to be. I want to develop a community around my shop.
Shopping local is important to you?
I just think it’s so important for people to shop local. The economy is getting to the point where everybody shops online, and there’s never anyone in the mall. But I’ve really proven, if you provide quality things at reasonable prices and a place for people to shop, they’ll shop. And we were so blessed to find this building and have the rent be reasonable, so we’ve been able to keep our price point reasonable. We’re more expensive than Marshalls, but you’re not going to find this kind of clothing in Marshalls. But we’re not Saks Fifth Avenue either. I’ve had zero complaints on my prices. I’ve had people actually tell me, “Wow, that’s a great price, I’m going to get the other shirt, too.” Which makes me happy. I don’t want merchandise sitting here because it’s too expensive, I want people to buy it and enjoy it.
What do you consider success?
I think it’s building a community. I love the second Thursday of every month, we do a sip and shop from 5-8 p.m. We do champagne punch with little bites to enjoy, and it’s just a place where women come in and hang out with girlfriends after they’ve dropped their kids at practice. There have been a lot of friendships formed here, which is nice. It’s become a real community. And it’s not just Warrenton residents, anymore, either. We are actually starting to get destination shoppers now, which is really exciting. People are googling us! We’ve got good statistics, we’ve got 5 stars everywhere. And we far exceeded what I thought we’d do in sales at this point. In our first year, I was just blown away.
My husband is very conservative, and he was cautious at the beginning. But I said, “Even if we don’t sell any clothes, we’ll meet friends, we’ll build a community, and build a safe place for people to come if they need something to wear.” And that’s what we’ve done, exactly what my goal was.