Wednesday, October 03, 2007
ARI CLARE and ALEX WHEELER:
The Boys Behind the “House • Boi” Boutique Speak
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
When Ari Clare and Alex Wheeler opened their new boutique, House • Boi, in North Park on August 25, they showed they really knew how to throw a party. There were luscious hors’ d’oeuvre trays, some of them served by shirtless models with the House • Boi logo body-painted across their chests. There were plenty of beverages and guests to drink them, and a marvelous room, filled with strikingly designed furniture, vases, paintings and other objets d’art — and what made it more interesting is that, while the food, drink and shirtless boys weren’t for sale, the furniture and artworks were.
Clare and Wheeler got together with Zenger’s for an interview a few weeks after that spectacular opening. We talked about what led them to open a store like House • Boi, why they picked an unusual location — 2537 University Avenue, in a block with a liquor store, an Afro-centric barber, the water-and-ice store of Hillcrest refugee “The Water Lady” and an apartment building — and the warm, homey feeling they’re trying to achieve, not only to distinguish theirs from every other trendy boutique but to give you an idea of how their merchandise will look in your home.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you start off and just tell me a little about yourselves, how you got together, what your interests are, and how that led you to starting the store?
Ari Clare: We’ve been together about 4 1/2 years as a couple, met in Phoenix, Arizona and have our little “son” Zach, our little dog. Alex was in corporate America for 20 years. I was in retail for 17 years, district manager with Ethan Allen, Restoration Hardware and companies like that. I decided that, when I had the opportunity to situate myself this way, I would want to get into independent retail, where there was less political drama and I could create my own environment, with Alex’s help. I wanted get unique with our lines that we brought in, and not have to deal with the limitations that exist in corporate retail Alex decided he was ready to get out of corporate, and I was ready to get out of my version of corporate, and so we decided to open this venture here.
Zenger’s: What brought you to San Diego?
Alex Wheeler: We’ve had a second home here for several years. Once we decided to leave corporate America, it was the perfect time for us to both relocate and pursue the next phase in our dreams, which was to open this store.
Clare: And to be in San Diego, which we absolutely love.
Wheeler: Which was the goal all along.
Clare: Just before we left, I was involved with a company that had two stores in Arizona and one in Montecito, California that were very eclectic, similar to this I learned a lot in that environment about hip men’s clothing, and always knew a lot of lines for gifty-type items, furniture and things like that. So we had a chance in this environment to become eclectic, almost turn into a type of Melrose, Hollywood-type store, and really bring all of these kind of odd, different things under one umbrella, to be different.
Wheeler: But with a San Diego flavor.
Zenger’s: I think that’s the thing that most impresses people about this place: the many different kinds of merchandise you have. What ties it all together?
Clare: I think it’s really interesting merchandising. We tried to create a casual environment where people feel comfortable looking around, hopefully presented in a way that’s very appealing. But at the same time we don’t want people to be afraid to pick something up or touch it, or try on jeans, or take a shirt off the hangar and try it on. We encourage people to lay on the sofas, as they would at home, before they make a decision as to whether or not it’s going to be the right fit for them.
We tried to keep it very eclectic in its appearance, and decided not to go the route of a typical boutique where everything is lined up perfectly on shelves, all the lamps in one spot, all the pillows in one exact section. We have things scattered throughout, so it almost forces you to make your way through this store to get a handle on what we’re all about. We also like to tell a story. When people come in, we like to explain why we’re unique, why we’re different; about our artists that we have featured right now, about how our upholstery is made, where we do it, and what kind of options we have. So, without overwhelming the client, we try to really give them the whole picture on what the story is behind this place.
Zenger’s: So what is the story behind this place?
Clare: We both love to shop, love fashion, love great things for our home. We’re both kind of nuts with that. We love to entertain, so we both like great platters and dishes and things like that. We really had trouble finding things that weren’t generic items anymore, and we definitely feel like that good old shopping experience of the old days, where you had people that called you when new things come in and kept an eye out for cool things in your size, or for your home, is kind of a thing of the past.
We’re trying to bring that back, and really bring on a personalized shopping experience. We’re going to be doing a lot of events in here. We don’t want to make this a pressured, “you must buy” kind of store, but more like a social-gathering kind of place that just happens to have really cool stuff. Hopefully, over time, you’ll trust us, you’ll learn to like what we’ve put together, and we’ll learn you better as a client. Also, we hope people will learn to support us as a community-based store. That’s what we’re asking for.
And really, we’ve gotten a great response, especially from North Park residents who would love to see this little section transform into something cleaner and nicer. I think it’s refreshing for them that we took a chance here, as opposed to going the easy road, which was Hillcrest or downtown or North Park proper now. I think the fact that we picked this exact spot just kind of intrigues a lot of people. But I’m glad we did, and I think it fits our eclectic feel very well.
Wheeler: It fits the edgy, the edgier side, which we’ve gotten a lot of compliments on as well. This is a great shop, and there are a lot of great businesses around us as well. So we’re all teaming together, and it’s a great community.
Zenger’s: You mentioned wanting to talk about the artists you’re showing. Who are you showing now?
Clare: We’re showing two gentlemen. One is Matthew Mayes, from Phoenix, Arizona, and he has the majority of the pieces in here at the moment, really abstract in nature. The other gentleman is more eclectic, kind of out there in his subjects. His name is Steve Hoffberger, and he shows mostly in Taos, New Mexico. He’s known for oil painting on glass. So he does some interesting things. We also hope to bring in local artists. We already have a local jewelry artist who’s going to be bringing in silver belt buckles and necklaces, and that will be in the near future, and little by little build up to be more “crafty” in terms of local artists as well. That’s high quality, but local support.
Zenger’s: Could you talk about some of the other things you have in here, where they came from?
Clare: We have men’s clothing. We have what we call our “gifty” kind of items, which are silver platters, martini shakers, great serving pieces, really fun pillows. We have silk pillows and we also have cotton and chenille pillows that are a little less expensive. Then we have some items that are great decorative accents for the home: Asian teapots and things I brought back on my travels to Shanghai: Chinese chopsticks and wax stamps and things like that that are very unique.
We have great vases: a mixture of hand-signed vases from Peru that are all ceramic and hand-painted; more production-type pieces that are very inexpensive but very modern in style. And great items for whether it be a birthday, holiday or a housewarming gift for a friend or family member. We try to put together a really unique group of gifts, and we’ll have a lot more coming for the holidays as well. And most of those gifts we’ve bought at gift shows, at lines I’ve weeded through over the years and found to be very different.
Our biggest priority is that we don’t want things that are going to be all up and down the Hillcrest shops, and University Heights. We want things where we’re the exclusive for all of San Diego, if that’s possible; and if not, at least for this kind of typical neighborhood here, so that people don’t see it everywhere. That’s kind of our main objective.
Zenger’s: That sounds like a real challenge, working hard to keep your stock unique.
Clare: It does. We’re constantly evolving, and as something sells we definitely question whether we want to replace it with the exact same thing, or take those funds and invest them into something new and fresh, to keep it ever-changing and evolving, which is usually the route that we go.
We had a customer last week — a couple, actually — but one in particular who bought a shirt and wanted reassurance that, once he bought this, it wasn’t going to be replaced with the same shirt in the exact same size he had. I guess people are tired of going out and seeing the same shirt on 10 other people when they’re at dinner or the bar. We’re trying to be different in that manner. Once we sell through something, we try a different look, a different grouping.
Zenger’s: That says quite a lot about the customers you’re attracting, too.
Clare: Definitely. Very interesting demographic. Definitely the Gay community, and now, because of some exposure we’ve had — we’ve been very lucky — in other publications, we’re definitely getting kind of that yuppie straight crowd as well, which has been good for business as well.
Zenger’s: If you’re getting straight people, do you ever see yourselves branching out to women’s clothes as well?
Clare: You know what? We never anticipated it, although we’ve been asked so many times that it’s becoming a consideration. So maybe down the road a little bit. I do have a little bit of experience with that through my last venture in Arizona. I don’t know how well that will flow with the House • Boi name, but I can see it now. There are always possibilities.
Zenger’s: Actually, one thing that amused me is that in the Leather community, the word “boi” means a woman with a very masculine, but boyish, appearance.
Wheeler: Really? Interesting.
Clare: So there you go. We need no name change. We’ve got it covered now. That’s interesting. That’s good. I learned something today.
Zenger’s: How are you guys doing so far?
Clare: We are actually far exceeding what our initial goals were for opening up. So that’s great. Like I said, people like what we have, like how we treat them, and I think they like the fact that they’re supporting something staying and growing in this neighborhood. Hopefully this will start doing a transition around here, which in their opinion is worth their investment of giving their dollars to us, versus going to a department store.
Wheeler: A lot of people like to come into the store and spend a bit of time and look around, because there’s so much to look at. That is very pleasing to us, because that’s the environment that we wanted to create in here, was to bring people in here, let them have some time to look around the store and see all the different, unique items we have. That’s been really pleasurable for us, to see people do that.
Clare: Yes, it’s fun just to chat with people, find out where they heard about us, where they saw us, and just find out where people live in relation to this store. But everybody has an interesting story, so it’s nice to chat with our clients.
Zenger’s: Have you got a lot of people in here who come to a store like this specifically to support a local business?
Clare: We’ve found that that seems to be, I would say, the majority. It’s also been nice to know we’ve had a couple of clothing store owners, who typically would be thought of as competitors, come in here and have a nice long talk. It’s different around here. It’s not us vs. the other small boutiques, it’s us vs. the corporate chains. If we don’t have something, we’ll refer them to another small boutique instead of sending them to Nordstrom’s or Macy’s. It’s not a cutthroat business in between these small boutiques trying to get their piece of the action, and cutthroat to the other ones. It’s really quite the opposite. It’s banding together to see that each other makes it, so that this area really turns into a cool shopping environment.
Zenger’s: How did you get all the gorgeous shirtless models who had your logo across their chests at the opening?
Wheeler: We have our secrets!
Clare: We teamed with a couple photographers in town that provided us models. We also do advertising with Rage magazine. I write a column on interior design ithere, and they put us in touch with a couple of models as well. I thought it would be a fun little “wow” factor to get our store up and running, and I definitely thought that doing the body paint on there was a fun touch to get people to look and see everything.