‘Now what?’: Clothing store survives, thrives after blaze forces sisters to reassess

It was 5 in the morning when Julie Sharp opened Facebook to find that downtown Moberly was engulfed in flames.

Sharp recalls turning to her sister, Joni Ashworth: “I think our building is on fire.”

She called the fire department to confirm her fears. Although the fire had not spread to the building, their resale women’s wear store, Encore, had been severely damaged by the smoke.

The sisters were in Columbia that day in November 2015 for a holiday open house. They had packed up all their new merchandise to sell it from a vendor booth at the event. Sharp remembers feeling guilty for taking away all the new items from the store, but now she sees it as a blessing in disguise.

Sharp and Ashworth decided there was nothing they could do in Moberly that day, so they stayed in Columbia and sold almost everything they had brought.

“Now what?” Sharp recalled thinking. “What do we do?

“I was, of course, devastated, but also confused why someone would do this and why it was us.”

The Moberly Fire Department and the Missouri State Fire Marshal determined that an unidentified person had started the fire in a dumpster behind a vacant building. Moberly police released a surveillance video of a suspect near the building around the time of the fire, but the investigation remains open.

The abandoned building was totaled. The two other businesses in the building block, Duval & Reid Menswear and Encore, suffered substantial smoke and water damage.

Encore was in its second year when the damage ruined everything in the shop.

“Before the fire, we were very successful,” Ashworth said. “We were really on a great train to success, and it took a little detour with the fire, but it didn’t stop us. It didn’t kick us down.”

On the right path

Sharp had been in retail since she was 16 years old and was retired when she decided to open up Encore in the summer of 2014 with her husband, Doug. She bought an existing consignment store, Cinderella’s Closet, that had been in business for 13 years.

After three months of remodeling, Sharp and her husband held a grand opening for Encore with items from only five consignors. She was unsure if they would sell anything, but more than 100 people from the area showed up that night to take a look.

“We filled our store and sold stuff as fast as we could ring it up,” Sharp said. “From that, we went as far as thinking we needed to add a little bit of new clothing to the store.”

The first new item was one style of shirt in five different colors. The day the shirts went on sale, they sold out. It was clear to the sisters that there was a need for new clothing in Moberly, and there was nowhere that offered it.

“We had something for everyone — shoes, purses, jewelry — and we started with a small amount of clothing,” Sharp said. “But the more we got, the more we sold. The more we sold, the more we wanted. So, we just grew rapidly.”

By the end of its first year, Encore had grossed $300,000 and had just as many new items as it did consignment pieces. As the store’s inventory grew, so did its market.

Sharp and Ashworth started to see more and more women from out of town shopping in their store as their social media marketing increased. They have always enjoyed getting to know their customers — learning their names, personal styles and lifestyles.

“We know 90 percent of our people,” Sharp said. “Everywhere we go, we see people that shop with us. We have people that will just come in and show us what they’re wearing just because.”

Joni Ashworth shows an item to an Encore customer. Ashworth and her sister, Julie Sharp, say they develop close relationships with the store’s regulars. | Michelle Hu/Missouri Business Alert

So when the fire hit, those loyal customers are what kept them going. Staff, family and friends came to the blackened store and helped clean out the remnants before closing the doors.

The week of the fire, Sharp’s son had purchased another building across the street from Encore. He offered the space to his mother so she could start her business back up.

Ashworth could tell her sister was unsure about starting the retail business up again, but one night at dinner, she ensured her that they had the strength to do it.

“I looked at her and said, ‘I don’t know exactly why, but I have a feeling that something good is going to come out of this,'” Ashworth recalled. “‘You just have to take that negative and turn it into a positive.'”

That’s exactly what they did.

Sharp accepted her son’s offer, and 18 days after the fire, she was able to renovate the new building and open up Encore again across the street. The boutique is no longer a resale store, instead offering brand-new clothing and accessories.

Hundreds of customers flocked to the new location for its grand opening on Thanksgiving Eve, and the sisters knew they had made the right decision.

“I feel like our customers asked us to please move forward,” Sharp said. “I don’t feel like we made that decision as much as they made that decision for us. Everyone that’s shopped with us has stuck with us.”

Encore 2

But they didn’t stop there.

Sharp still owned the former Encore building, and while she did consider leasing it out, she ultimately decided to keep the consignment business alive in Moberly.

“It started 14 years ago as a consignment store, and I feel like as long as that business is going well, we’ll continue to offer it,” Sharp said. “Our consigners kept calling and wanted to come back in our store. We had very loyal people. So, I feel like it’s kind of a pillar in our community, and I just wanted to keep it that way.”

After about a year of papered windows, extensive remodeling and help from the community, Sharp was able to open up the resale store again in its original location. This time, they called it Encore 2.

The newly renovated consignment boutique is complete with chandeliers lining the ceiling and various departmentalized sections, including a large jewelry and shoe selection.

The two stores across the street from each other serve different markets. Ashworth said she sees more women shopping for professional attire in the consignment store, while Encore offers more fun, bohemian-inspired weekend wear.

Encore now has a sister store, Encore 2, located across the street from it. The two shops offer different styles of clothing. | Michelle Hu/Missouri Business Alert

Both boutiques reflect the colorful and creative personalities of Sharp and Ashworth, and the sisters try to make customer service their main focus. No customer goes unwelcomed, and the sisters try to always make them feel at home.

“We try to base our business on the fact that you can come in here and have a great experience,” Sharp said. “We give you help, we put together outfits that we know are going to look good on you. We don’t put things on people that they’re not going to like, and we try to help people jump out of their box a little bit.”

To the sisters, customers are like family.

Morgan Springer has been a loyal customer at Encore from the start, and when she was looking for a new location for her makeup studio downtown last year, Sharp suggested she move it into their building.

Once an Encore customer, Springer is now the store’s next-door neighbor with her Merle Norman cosmetics studio. She said she admires the sisters’ success and can always turn to them for business advice.

“I didn’t know anything about retail before I moved over here, and they have just really helped me get situated and feel welcomed,” Springer said. “They’re always very helpful to anybody and everybody that walks through the doors.”

Now, three years after the fire, Sharp said they have nearly tripled their business, grossing nearly $800,000 between the two stores in 2017. Their inventory and customer base have grown, and they even started their own tuxedo rental business inside Encore.

Ashworth has noticed people in Moberly starting to turn their attention away from malls and retreat to local shops. She cites this as a factor in the stores’ success.

“When we started in retail, it was back in the day when people in small towns were all over the streets shopping everywhere on Friday nights,” she said. “We saw the way the community used to be, and we see the potential of how it can be that way again and how we can contribute to making sure downtown is thriving.”

Sharp said the fire has only made them stronger. Both businesses are busy and continue to grow in inventory and customer base, she said.

The smoke may have destroyed their initial business plan, but it also provided them with a whole new opportunity they had never envisioned in the first place.

“As much as I hate to say that this has been a blessing, because I never want anyone to have to go through a fire, I feel like I have become a much stronger person after all of this,” Sharp said. “I found out that people will step forward, people will step up and support you. We had so many offers to help, and I feel like it’s just empowered me to become a stronger person.”

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