I don’t know many Divas. Well, none, actually. But spend five minutes with Traci Pena, the owner of Reincarnation, an “upscale resale and fab finds” boutique on River Street in Rutland, and you’ll start to understand exactly what diva-ness is all about. Pena’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious. Enter into a conversation with her, and you’ll suddenly find yourself as animated and excited as she is.
Mother, student, arts director, marketing/public-relations consultant – Pena’s no stranger to reinvention herself. It’s no surprise, then, that her latest venture as the owner of a second-hand clothing boutique finds her doing just that.
But how does one end up running a second-hand boutique in Rutland in the first place?
A native of Binghamton, New York, Pena took the long route to Vermont. She spent 20 years living in Taos, New Mexico, with her two sons before heading back east. Pena settled in Boston, where she attended Northeastern University.
At first, she was considering a career in law.
“I thought I wanted to be an attorney so I went into paralegal studies to see if I liked it,” she explains.
Pena soon recognized the legal world wasn’t for her, deciding instead to get into marketing opening her own PR and marketing agency, which she ran for five years.
“I began to realize that I wanted a better quality of life,” she says, citing her motivation to head north. “I wanted to live someplace that was affordable, where I didn’t have to commute.”
Pena had regularly visited friends in Rutland over the years, and finally decided to take them up on the invitation to move here.
Listening to Pena describe how the boutique came about proves that sometimes everything just falls into place.
“The store had been a dream of mine forever,” she says, “I wanted to do something funky and unique.”
An avid second-hand shopper, her friends had always recognized her ability to turn something into something else. And on River Street, that’s exactly what she did.
“I live in that neighborhood, and I kept noticing the ‘for rent’ sign in the window,” Pena says of the building that formerly housed Lenoci’s Shoe Repair. Finally, she got up the nerve to make the call, and take the plunge.
“I’ve always believed that you’re only really guaranteed job security if you work for yourself,” Pena declares, adding that self-employment has provided her with the most reliable staff she has encountered: herself.
But despite job security, she was no less anxious about her venture into retail.
“For most of my professional life I was working as a consultant, being behind the scenes,” she says of her previous life working inside the PR and marketing world in Boston. “Owning a business is much more concrete, more real.”
Fortunately, Pena’s outgoing personality was well-suited for the endeavor.
“After I checked out the building, everything just came together,” she says, noting that the property owner was excited by her business plan, “They let me in there to start painting practically the next day.”
While conventional wisdom in Rutland dictates that a business like Pena’s should be downtown, occupying a storefront on Center Street or Merchants Row, Pena has proven to be a shining exception to that rule.
“I knew my shop was going to be a destination,” she says, “It didn’t have to be on the main drag.”
Interestingly, despite her assertion that she didn’t need to be in a high-traffic area, Pena soon discovered that River Street was in fact just that.
“As I was working to get the shop open, I began to notice the traffic.”
She has counted more than 400 vehicles passing through the intersection of River and Granger Streets in an hour.
To be sure, Pena has taken full advantage of her high visibility. Her shop windows are meticulously arranged and brightly accented (often with pink) – old clothes given a new, fashionable life in Pena’s hands. In a neighborhood, often put down by the rest of the community – longtime residents refer to it as “The Gut” – Pena has brought new life to the street.
We spent some time talking about The Gut. Historically home to Rutland’s Italian-American community, the neighborhood fell on hard times as those families moved out. In recent years, however, the area has enjoyed a renaissance with first-time homeowners and young families.
Pena sees potential for growth not just for herself, but for anyone looking for a new business opportunity. Pena, who started out renting, now owns the building. While she is tight-lipped about her future plans, she notes that having whatever she does be part of the neighborhood is important to her.
Indeed, Pena is especially attentive to the relationships she develops with her customers. She regards her business as being more than just retail: “I want it to be like the corner barbershop.” She emphasizes the importance of “the personal touch.”
Pena cites public relations powerhouse Terrie Williams as a mentor and key influencer in her approach to business. Williams, author of “The Personal Touch: What You Really Need to Succeed In Today’s Fast-Paced Business World,” runs one of the most successful PR firms in the country, representing clients such as Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson, Time Warner, the NFL and AT&T.
“Today, we forget the common courtesies, the basic things that connect all of us,” Pena says of the modern business world, “It’s about building relationships.”
Reincarnation opened in February of this year. On the first day, 267 people visited the store. Pena did no traditional advertising. No print. No radio. Nada.
“It was all word of mouth,” she said. “I’d be in line somewhere, and start a conversation. I handed out business cards to everyone I knew, and told them to spread the word.”
You can’t argue with the result. Pena’s approach to business is nothing novel; she’ll be the first to tell you. Success doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. It’s customer service and building meaningful relationships. It’s the willingness to take a chance and do something in a unique, dynamic way. And Traci Pena has done just that.
SIDEBAR :: Pretty in Pink: Local breast cancer foundation raises awareness while having a good time
At the checkout counter of Reincarnation on River Street, you’ll find Ms. Petunia, the Round-up Pig. The store’s mascot, Ms. Petunia is a brightly decorated piggy bank where customers of the second-hand boutique are encouraged to “round-up” their purchase price then donate the change. All money goes to owner Traci Pena’s Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation; an organization, which provides aid to local individuals and families who are dealing with breast cancer.
“My mother died of breast cancer when I was five,” she says, “Cancer changed my life before I even knew what it was.”
Maintaining her commitment to being more than just retail, Pena has used her business as a platform to promote breast cancer awareness. Her annual fundraiser, “For the Love of Tea,” is an opportunity to educate and raise money for her foundation. While it may have been conceived in the style of an old-fashioned tea party, the event is a celebration of women. “It’s like no tea party you’ve ever been to,” notes Pena.
But it’s not just for fun. The focus party is to inform and educate. “I had women come up to me last year – women in their forties – who’d never had a breast exam, but said they were going home to call their doctors,” Pena says, thrilled at the impression the event had left upon guests.
Of the Foundation, Pena describes it as a way to locally support people who are affected by breast cancer. “I want to help women and their families with the everyday aspects of their illness,” explaining that the money is intended for day-to-day necessities like transportation, groceries and childcare – the basic needs that often become a burden when a loved one is undergoing treatment.
Next year, Pena is thinking even bigger. “I asked myself, ‘how do I grow this next year?’” Her idea was to do start a project using the most visible symbol of the breast cancer: breasts.
Pena has rounded up a group of models, artists, and sponsors for next year’s major fundraising event, “Lasting Mammories,” to be held in conjunction with her tea party. She has recruited models who will have casts of their breast made, and given over to local artists to be turned into works of art that will then be sold off in a silent auction. Proceeds will go to her Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation.
The finished pieces will be unveiled in April during that month’s Art Hop festivities. To find out more about the Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation and Pena’s Lasting Mammories project, visit http://www.reincarnationconsignment.biz.