Steel Magnolia Valerie Ianieri and The Old Town Shop
Her Dream Overflows with Products, Customers and Hospitality a Year and a Half Later
By Amanda Socci
The Old Town Shop at 105 South Union Street is the brainchild of sole owner, Valerie Ianieri, an Alexandria resident since 1982, who defines ‘steel magnolia’ due to her uncanny inner strength and lighthearted femininity.
For many years, Valerie Ianieri lived a corporate life, clocking in and out of corporate duties, much of which included travel. That all changed on a Friday afternoon in late October of 2016.
According to Valerie, “I was shopping for somebody who was moving here but I couldn’t find anything that said Old Town, Alexandria. I went to the Visitor’s Center [on King Street] and they said they didn’t carry that [items that specifically say Old Town, Alexandria].”
Then Valerie casually asked the woman at the Alexandria Visitor’s Center that day if she thought there was a market for Old Town-specific products. The woman replied ‘yes.” In a nanosecond, Valerie knew she had to create a business.
Something prompted the woman to tell Valerie that the deadline for the Alexandria Visitor’s Guide was that day at 5:00 p.m. Could Valerie meet that deadline with an ad for this new business she just created in her head?
To meet the deadline, Valerie had to give the woman her business name, address, and website by 5:00 p.m. Without pausing long enough to blink, Valerie blurted a confident ‘yes.’ In Valerie’s mind, she said, “I can do this!”
Valerie immediately started researching. She knew, “the name has to reflect what you are” and chose The Old Town Shop because that’s what it would be about, a shop that sells Old-Town-specific merchandise. Valerie proceeded to call the Virginia State Corporation Commission to confirm availability of her desired store name, purchased a domain name from Network Solutions, and, took her biggest leap of faith when she confirmed the location of her would-be shop before making it legal.
With a bushel of confidence and business savvy airlifting her steps, Valerie walked in command of her future near the harbor at Waterfront Park and rested upon both King street and South Union street. In mere mortal seconds, she assessed the situation of vacant properties, looked at the signs, and plotted her exact address, all without calling the listing agent beforehand. There wasn’t enough time for that formality. After all, the steel magnolia was on a mission: Valerie had to get her exact address and business information to the woman at the Alexandria Visitor’s Center by 5:00 p.m. and nothing would stand in her way.
To further seal the perfection of her new business execution, Valerie received her tagline from the sky. It was a pristine package of certainty that revealed “where the past is your present,” which still stands firmly as The Old Town Shop tagline today. On that fateful Friday afternoon in October of 2016, Valerie unflinchingly created her business with exact information, paid required fees to the Alexandria Visitor’s Center, and met her 5:00 p.m. cutoff in record time that would leave Mark Cuban with his mouth gaping.
It is important to note that on the next business day, Valerie called the listing agent and successfully negotiated the lease for her current location of 105 S. Union Street. And by the way, Valerie still had not sold her pharmaceutical business in New Jersey at that time. The powerhouse Valerie kept it for an additional year afterward.
Despite carrying herself with a formidable source of inner strength and chutzpah, Valerie is quick to revert to a charming feminine softness and readily admits, “I didn’t know what I was doing!” The space at 105 S. Union Street was previously owned by the now-defunct Firehouse Bakery, a food establishment whose interior space was wholly different than what Valerie needed to sell her merchandise. “We redid the floor, whitewashed the rafters, painted, and everything started to fall into place. There was a company going out of business. We got their fixtures.” Valerie was very lucky to have fallen into possession of so many useful retail fixtures from previous businesses that had stopped their operations.
Local Foods and Old Town-Specific
In Valerie’s quest to talk about the history of Alexandria and to be the one to focus on Old Town Alexandria, she has made it a priority to seek, find, and enlist the items made by independent artisans, crafters, and solo entrepreneurs to put a spotlight on the local flavors of the area.
The Old Town Shop, a physically small boutique, makes excellent use of its limited space through visually stunning displays of items, each of which has very specific and unique themes. In ‘Locals Alley,” for example, located in the back of the store, shoppers are treated to a fine selection of nonperishable foods made by vendors from the Old Town Farmer’s Market. Valerie proudly proclaims that the Old Town Farmer’s Market, with origins dating back to 1753, is the oldest of its kind.
There is also a prominent pineapple wall, replete with as many pineapple-themed housewares and gifts as the eye can handle. Valerie points out that because the store is located near the Potomac River, there must be a nautical connection and ties to the port, which explains its nautical-style merchandise.
The boutique sells merchandise featuring a handful of original designs, including its popular OTX (Old Town Alexandria) brand, whimsically inspired by North Carolina’s OBX (Outer Banks) and created specifically for The Old Town Shop.
Yes, but how does Valerie really feel about her Old Town business?
Valerie Ianieri is the first to jump up and down in pure glee, “I am happy. Yes, yes, and yes!” Valerie is thrilled with the success of The Old Town Shop, having only been open since April of 2017, noting residents have told her and her staff how happy they are that the boutique is here and the fact that they made the decision to be “Alexandria-centric” by putting the spotlight on Alexandria-made foods, toys, clothing, housewares, books, pet items, and gifts.
All giddiness aside, Valerie also shows a more tender side when it comes to her staff. If anybody were to try to credit Valerie alone with the growing success of The Old Town Shop, she would shoo your hand away as if she were swatting a fly. Valerie’s emotions run high as she thinks lovingly about the staff that has helped her get to where she is today. “I love my people and my team,” Valerie noted, as she became visibly moved by the people who work for her. “[my staff helps people] feel good when they walk in and out. My team takes an interest in everyone who walk in the store.”
Among the people on staff at The Old Town Shop are Dawn Bryant, Diane Bird, and Emileigh Rettig. Dawn’s official title is sales associate and merchandiser, but a more appropriate description is woman-of-all-trades. Shoppers may ask Dawn all kinds of questions related to the varied merchandise. More often than not, Dawn’s replies will be chock full of deep, rich, historical facts that would rival that of the Jeopardy television show contestants.
Diane is the general manager of the store. She is Valerie’s right hand woman who keeps things smooth and filters customer requests. Emileigh is the assistant manager. She is a youthful ball of energy who would make an excellent cover model showcasing The Old Town Shop’s various clothing items.
When asked to describe exactly what is meant by The Old Town Shop to a person who has never heard of the store, sales associate Dawn Bryant succinctly stated “It’s a gift shop. We sell Old Town Alexandria merchandise. We carry things made by Alexandria artists.”
The Old Town Shop
105 S. Union Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
The shop also has an active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.