Twenty years ago, Niagara Falls native Christine Chiappone came to Savannah, GA, by way of Florida. “I just kind of landed here. I was going through a divorce and trying to find a new, fresh start away from Florida. I wanted to have my own shop and have a peaceful space where I could be creative,” says Christine. “And I love the South. It just has this mysterious beauty, and I’m always drawn to historical towns and places near the water.”
During her first few days in Savannah, the retail veteran was enjoying breakfast by the window of the Goose Feathers Cafe in downtown Savannah when a For Sale sign on a building across the street caught her eye. Despite their impending separation, her then-husband and high school sweetheart, pushed her to pursue the property, offering up money that they had saved to buy a house together. “He wanted to support me, because I had spent nearly 13 years helping him go through school and get his master’s. I was 32, and it was really the first time in my life that I was thinking of myself,” says Christine. “And 20 years later, I’m still sitting here in the same spot!”
In that charming 1920s building in the heart of historic downtown Savannah, she renovated and built out her original vision for Terra Cotta, a European tea room and luxury gift shop. The boutique has evolved into a full lifestyle boutique, most sought after for its carefully curated collection of classic, yet comfortable, and casual clothing. Christine describes their aesthetic as “having style, quality and taste, but it’s easy.” As the Terra Cotta style team has grown to include eight passionate employees, the tiny shop now carries a baby section with gorgeous blankets, clothes and plush toys; a men’s area with shaving accoutrements, satchels, briefcases, books and more; a bath section with intoxicating European soaps and lotions; and, of course, handbags, jewelry, accessories and shoes that appeal to women of all ages.
“It’s really granddaughter to grandmother, which is hard to buy for,” says Christine, who travels to market shows eight times a year to unearth the one-of-a-kind pieces fitting the Terra Cotta style. She currently purchases items for her small shop from a whopping 250 vendors. “People come in and do top-to-bottom shopping here — lingerie, shoes, wardrobe, handbags, something for their husband and a baby gift. I mean, they walk out of here with a diverse array of purchases.”
She jokes that she has always had a taste for items that are out of her price range, but her commitment to finding high-quality products is at the heart of Terra Cotta’s success. Her favorite compliment, which she hears often from longtime customers, is that they still cherish a nightgown or sweater that they bought from her years ago. “I don’t buy based on what’s in the magazines. I mean, I’m aware of it, but I don’t have to have a brand because it is big in L.A.,” says Christine. “I have to like it and be sure my customers are going to like it. I want good quality, and I want them to have it for many years.”
Although the shop is packed with stunning items displayed on locally found vintage props and antique furniture, there is also a basement that runs the length of the shop filled with inventory that never even makes it upstairs. “Once you’re in here, and you say you like something, the girls will bring you items straight from the stockroom that never even get shown,” says Christine of the full-service attention given to Terra Cotta’s clientele. The employees maintain a client wish list and a working knowledge of client tastes, and they regularly make custom orders and even offer private shopping, bringing selections of clothing and other items to busy clients at their offices. “And men love it in here because, well, first of all, they have all of these beautiful girls waiting on them, and I know they like that. And we know exactly what their wives want and we gift wrap, so they just feel like kings here,” says Christine.
Christine gives her team members buying responsibilities, creative license over merchandise displays and social media management. She not only cultivates this artistic freedom, but also a team atmosphere, where she listens to their suggestions and, in turn, gently guides them through this business that she has been in since she was a teenager working at a hotel gift shop in Niagara Falls.
“You have to work hard and be giving to others, and that’s a core belief in my life,” says Christine. “And we work together as a team. My girls are all buyers and do displays perfectly. They maneuver around customers in this tiny space, hustling up and down the basement stairs, while still being graceful and calm, so it’s enjoyable for customers. We are very much a family here, and the customers and locals know that.”
One of the most celebrated members of the Terra Cotta family is Amelia, the shop cat. A customer rescued Amelia from one of the historic squares in Savannah, where she was being attacked by a bird, brought her to the shop and convinced Christine to keep her. In the early days, the kitten damaged a lot of clothes, most notably a Nicole Miller gown, but she’s mellowed out in the eight years since. She’s usually sleeping under the footstools in the dressing rooms or in the display window, where local bartenders tap on the window at night to check on the famous shop cat, sometimes snapping photos to share with the Terra Cotta family.
“We have a folder of funny Amelia pictures. She just adds such a nice element to the store and she relaxes us all. And the kids come running to look for her,” says Christine. It’s these moments of shared happiness at Terra Cotta that move Christine, especially when she never imagined that she’d have a beloved 20-year-old boutique with fiercely loyal customers, a team of dedicated style mavens and a famous shop cat, to boot.
“Just seeing the joy people get from it, it’s just, I get emotional just talking about it,” she pauses. “The girls just grow, and get so much out of it. They grow up here, and some go off and do their own websites or open their own stores. It’s so rewarding and very humbling. And it’s healed me, too. It truly has. I mean, I’ve lost two marriages, but God has just given me such a blessing with this, and so I feel a responsibility to maintain it and keep it going as long as I can.”
Thanks to the fine ladies at Terra Cotta for today’s images of the lovely shop, beautiful threads and Amelia the cat!
Terra Cotta is located at 34 Barnard St. in Savannah, GA. Hours are “10-ish to 6-ish,” seven days a week. To order an item, call (912) 236-6150 or visit terracottasavannah.com.
And follow Terra Cotta’s beautiful Instagram feed: @terracottasavannah