Owner succeeds by going solo for second shop

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 


Owner Jennifer Donner prepares merchandise for sale at Dolly's Vintage store in Durham, NC on Nov. 2, 2012. The store features features vintage clothes and colorful gifts.


  • Jennifer Donner's advice for starting a retail business •  Start small. Consider small spaces with a low overhead. •  Don’t get overexcited because you really want a space. Take the time to negotiate a good lease. •  Don’t overspend on initial merchandise. •  Think about whether a partnership will work for you. Partnerships allow you to share the risk, but they can also complicate the business plan. And people and priorities change over time. If you enter a partnership, make sure you have a contract and clear expectations about the business and boundaries. •  Be good to your neighbors.

Walk through the doors of Dolly’s Vintage in downtown Durham and you’ll find a whimsical shop packed with colorful boas, shiny go-go boots and racks of vintage dresses, fur coats and hipster shirts.

The story behind the seven-year-old Main Street attraction is serious, however. And it centers around the lessons owner Jennifer Donner learned from a defunct business relationship, the love of her grandmothers’ closets and her passion for giving old clothes new life.

Donner and her two former business partners opened Ooh La Latte and The Untidy Museum in the early 2000s. . The vintage store included a coffee bar and doubled as a venue for live music.

The partnership had its advantages, such as twice the workforce, ideas and investment, Donner said.

But split profits, differing opinions and changing expectations and personal situations didn’t work for Donner.

“I had an illness in my family, my father, and so it got overwhelming,” Donner said. “I pulled away from that business and took a couple of years to take care of my dad.”

The partnership unraveled, and the store closed in 2005.

In the meantime, Donner had started collecting inventory for a new vintage store, which she would open on her own this time.

“I wanted to do it exactly the way I wanted it to be,” Donner said.

Donner said she discovered her love of vintage clothes by exploring her grandmothers’ closets as a kid.

“I love all the colors. I like the muumuus, the Hawaiian shirts,” she said. “I just love vintage clothes.”

Donner’s new business plan was simple: Start small.

“For a lot of businesses that open, they really just need a tiny space and you grow as you see your business is actually going to grow,” she said.

Donner opened Dolly’s Vintage in a 1,000-square-foot space with modest rent in Brightleaf Square in October 2005.

In the first months, Donner made enough to cover expenses, including rent on a storage space where she kept extra inventory. .

“It did well enough for me to stay,” she said. “My husband works full-time. It was a luxury for me to do this without that kind of stress. I think if I was on my own and had to put kids through college, I would probably have to have six of these.”

Donner has a passion for her merchandise, which she sells her items at affordable prices, and strives for excellent customer service.

“If a college boy comes in and wants a present for his girlfriend under $20, we find it. We wrap it,” she said. “You have to go above and beyond.”

Donner has one full-time employee, plus a handful of part-timers, mainly family and friends, to fill in when she needs help.

Donner and her husband bought and renovated a building on West Main Street in Durham in March 2011. Although the project took longer and she spent more than anticipated, the move paid off.

With the larger space, she no longer needs extra storage, and she has doubled her inventory.

Customer traffic has increased as downtown residents frequent the store.

“It is a loyal neighborhood,” Donner said.

And there are the dedicated customers, who turn to Dolly’s for Halloween, the N.C. Pride Parade and other colorful events.

“It really, in the course of the day, is a little bit of everybody,” she said.

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