Jennifer McKee was born and raised in Clark County, and though she moved away for awhile, she came back to South Charleston as soon as she had the chance.
That move back was incredibly meaningful to her, and she’s jumped back into her hometown both as a business owner and community leader.
“Everything that I do community-wise … It’s because I really do care that it’s a charming, fulfilling place to live,” she says.
McKee’s late husband worked in Cincinnati, and she says when it was getting close to the time for him to retire, she knew it meant it was time to move back home.
McKee and her daughter Karman Ogden – both Southeastern High School graduates – are hair stylists by trade. But, outside of work, they enjoyed refinishing and repurposing furniture.
About five years ago, they decided they wanted to start selling some of the furniture they had refinished as well as some handmade crafts.
They were working on their creations in the garage next to the salon where they worked on Chillicothe Street in South Charleston, McKee says.
“You hear about garage start-ups, well, this was literally one,” she laughed.
Though the garage wasn’t heated or air conditioned, making their work time weather-dependent, McKee and Ogden dedicated their free time to making a variety of items and would host sale weekends, where they would sell out of their inventory and start making more.
The garage location lasted about a year until the salon agreed to let McKee and Ogden revamp the front waiting room into a sales area.
“We were then able to expand our hours, be open every week, had air conditioning and heat, and we were then able to add some more vendors who had handmade pieces, too,” says McKee, adding that they also held maker classes where people could come learn some new, crafty skills.
After a year in that location, McKee says they realized they needed more space. She purchased a building in the South Charleston Historic Business District, and the duo moved their business there.
In addition to the need for space for their growing business, Ogden wanted to move forward with her dream of opening a coffee shop. So, in the 1,100 sq. ft. space at 15 Chillicothe St., McKee and Ogden started Village Chic and Village Cup – a combo boutique shop and coffee shop.
Shortly after, the building next door at 17 Chillicothe St. became available. McKee says it was perfect because it already had heating and air and had a connecting interior doorway to their current location. So, in 2018, she bought the additional space, took a week to remodel and grew into the 2,300 sq. ft. space.
“About two-thirds of the space is devoted just to the boutique. We have retail furniture, craft supplies, paint supplies, jewelry, handmade candles, gifts, and more,” McKee says. “The other third we can use as an event space. We built a stage … and pre-Covid, we had euchre night and comedy night and poker night and meetings for community events. We’ve had concerts and all kinds of things.”
Business had been growing, and because of the coffee shop, McKee says they were fortunate to be able to stay open as an essential business to serve food and drinks during business shutdowns caused by the pandemic in early 2020.
But, the mother-daughter team realized that to continue thriving through the pandemic, they’d need to make some changes, including building an online presence.
To help grow that presence, McKee connected with one off their Village Chic vendors, Kari Johnston. The two built a business relationship that blossomed into Johnston opening Village Chic’s sister store – Rose City Boutique – in Springfield in November.
“I think it’s a very unique business concept,” McKee says. “It feels like we’re a front runner for small businesses to work together. We each have our own strengths, and we work together to fill in the gaps with what we both needed.”
MeKee helps with creating displays and the design aesthetic of Rose City Boutique, while Johnston created and maintains and online sales platform for Village Chic.
Additionally, the two shops carry merchandise from many of the same vendors, and each carries items made by the other shop’s owner.
The collaboration has been successful to help keep Village Chic and Village Cup up and running smoothly. And, with changes to accommodate for social distancing, the shop has also been able to continue some vendor classes, teaching attendees how to make wreaths, weave macramé, make wooden barn quilt designs, and refresh their own pieces from home using paint.
The classes are smaller, and attendees wear masks, but McKee is happy to have the space to still offer them to give people something to do and look forward to during these times.
“Covid put a dent in what we could do, but we still found a way to make it work,” she says.
McKee also is active on a variety of community committees, including the Community Club, which hosts Christmas in South Charleston, and the planning committee for the celebration of Southeastern Schools’ 150th anniversary this year.
While she’s excited to move past Covid times and get back to enjoying larger gatherings – like Market on the Alley – McKee says efforts to move forward with community beautification and keeping the community strong haven’t stopped.
And speaking to the time and effort she’s able to spend supporting the South Charleston community as a whole, McKee says, “It truly is everything to me.”
Though McKee doesn’t have specifics yet about what the future holds for her business, she definitely doesn’t have any plans of slowing down. She owns another storefront along her block that she’s deciding what to do with, and she’s interested in making sure other businesses coming to South Charleston find success as well.
“From the very beginning, our business was more than just about our own goals,” she says. “We wanted to bring life back to South Charleston’s Historic Business District.”