Shop Talk

Backstory: Durham’s Magpie Boutique fulfills a passion for clothes, accessories, beauty

Po-Ming Wong, owner of Magpie Boutique in Durham, left her corporate finance career to open the shop in 2009.
Po-Ming Wong, owner of Magpie Boutique in Durham, left her corporate finance career to open the shop in 2009. TERI SAYLOR

Po-Ming Wong is on a mission to create unexpected beauty in every woman who crosses the threshold of her downtown Durham shop Magpie Boutique.

And now, celebrating five years in business, she has brought a renewed touch of beauty to the store itself.

On a recent chilly, blustery Saturday morning, Magpie is a warm, cheerful haven. Wong, a petite, youthful 40-year-old, has just returned from a buying trip in New York City, and even though a cancelled flight resulted in a late return to Durham, she is energized and ready to greet her weekend customers.

“Take a look at these dressing rooms. Aren’t they great?” Wong said, as she flings open two doors in the back of the boutique, revealing small cushy spaces that look cozy enough for a midday nap.

Wong recently hired Durham interior designer Heather Garrett to redesign the shop, installing tree trunks that stretch almost to the 27-foot-high ceiling in the renovated historic Walker Warehouse.

Built in 1897, the building served as a loading dock for the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. back in the days when tobacco was king. Magpie occupies Suite D, a 1,200-square-foot space next to the West End Wine Bar.

In December 2009, Wong signed the lease that would take her out of the world of corporate finance and big money and propel her into small-business America.

Wong, whose parents hail from Hong Kong, is a first generation American, born in Virginia and educated at the University of Georgia, where she earned a bachelor’s in economics.

She started her career as a senior tax consultant for Ernst & Young in Atlanta and advanced into a successful profession in treasury operations at Catholic University and Duke University.

All her life, Wong harbored a passion for clothing and accessories. And as much as she loves luxurious fabrics, sparkling unique jewelry, she mostly enjoys helping her clients feel beautiful.

Magpie’s early years were tough. Wong and her then-husband borrowed money from BB&T to cover construction costs.

A line of credit provided the cash flow to stock her inventory, and the economy was at historic lows. Road construction on Main Street shut down the thoroughfare for nearly a year, limiting access to the fledgling business.

“The wine bar owners and I felt like we were on an island,” she said. “We had great customer support, but it was a challenging time.”

Drawing on her cash management skills and experience, Wong was able to nurture Magpie along, and today, the store is thriving.

Now, she manages the shop on her own.

“It can be scary sometimes, but I am very independent,” she said.

Working as a sole proprietor keeps her nimble. She gets to do all of the company’s jobs: the owner, the merchandiser, the janitor, the cashier, the accountant and the business manager. She is also the boss, with two employees.

Wong named the boutique Magpie after the black and white bird that is said to favor shiny objects like pieces of foil, tinsel and glass. She recalled a shopping spree at a jewelry show, where she was attracted to the most glittering, sparkly treasures.

“The saleswoman said to me, ‘Well, aren’t you a little magpie?’ ” Wong said. “So when I wrote my business plan, I kept dropping in different names, and I really loved ‘Magpie.’ ”

Wong enjoys traveling around the U.S. and other countries to meet with clothing and jewelry designers and stocking the boutique with items she loves. Her favorite task, however, is her personal styling services, which can turn retail customers into clients.

The three-part process involves an interview with the client and then a home visit to clean out closets. On the final step, Wong goes shopping and picks out new clothing items that suit the client’s lifestyle and needs.

“Yes, it can be scary,” Wong admits. “But I work fast, make it fun, and I don’t judge.”

Wong’s mission is to uncover beauty in her clients and to make them feel good about themselves.

“When customers finds that perfect piece of clothing or jewelry that makes them feel better, you can see their energy change,” she said.

And that energizes Wong.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer and owns Open Water Communications in Raleigh. Reach her at terisaylor@hotmail.com.

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