Kari Johnston's entrepreneur dream turned reality with Rose City Boutique

Kari Johnston’s career plan never saw her leaving a corporate business world that she felt comfortable in.

But in November 2020, she put in her notice and took on the challenge focusing on running her own business – Rose City Boutique, located at 115 E. Ward St., Springfield.

A Tecumseh High School graduate, Johnston graduated from Wittenberg University and says she worked her way up at Assurant for 14 years.

“I fell in love with the corporate environment,” Johnston says. “I had really good bosses, and I rose through the ranks there. I was an operations manager when I left there for another opportunity and another company.”

Between 2017 and 2019, Johnston faced multiple trials in her life, including the untimely deaths of three close friends.

“I was personally going through a lot of emotions and going through the grief process, and I was looking for some kind of outlet to process my feelings,” she says. “I stumbled on chalk painting on Pinterest, and it looked fun and easy, so I wanted to try it.”

Johnston used chalk paint to refinish her first piece of furniture, and it quickly sold on Facebook Marketplace.

What started as a therapeutic outlet quickly turned from a hobby to a side hustle she couldn’t get enough of.

Johnston taught herself various techniques by watching other makers on YouTube, and decided to launch her first business – Kari Lou Furnishings. She continued selling furniture she’d painted and found a small shop in Mechanicsburg to let her sell the DIY Paint Co. brand chalk paint she used for all her projects.

Looking for an outlet that might be a better fit for her product, Johnston reached out to the owner of the Village Chic in South Charleston, Jennifer McKee, in 2019.

“I was both intimidated and impressed with Jennifer’s process and professionalism,” Johnston says. “As soon as I walked in (to the shop), I loved the vibe of the place.”

The two entrepreneurs hit it off, and Johnston soon became a vendor selling DIY paint and some of her products in McKee’s shop. She also taught maker classes as Village Chic.

“Then Covid hit, and all of that went away,” Johnston says. “But, people went (do it yourself) crazy during Covid. Village Chic could stay open because of Village Cup inside being a coffee shop, so people went DIY bananas. My sales of DIY paint when Covid hit skyrocketed.

“It was the best problem to have. I could not even keep up with how many DIY (brand) products people wanted.”

As Johnston’s corporate role became remote in 2020 and she continued making painted furniture pieces, she says her home began to feel very crowded, so she started looking for a location to rent to work on her furniture projects.

She landed on space available in the former Guitar Attention Center building, where the owner was willing to rent her a room until he was able to sell the building. But, Johnston fell in love with the building and says she could immediately imagine it transformed into a shop of her dreams.

Her road block – finding the down payment to secure the loan she needed to buy the building.

She looked into selling her Jeep, but still would have only have two-thirds of the funds she needed. Until Johnston got a letter from her former employer, saying that she was eligible for a pension payout totaling exactly the difference she needed for the down payment.

Johnston decided it was time to move forward without looking back. But she didn’t want to hurt the working relationship she had built as a vendor with Village Chic.

Johnston again met with McKee and the two created an unusual, but sturdy business plan. Johnston would open Rose City Boutique in Springfield as a sister store to Village Chic in South Charleston.

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.

“Jennifer called the vendors and asked if they would like to expand into Springfield, and they were all for it,” Johnston says. “There’s a very specific niche in South Charleston, and some vendors would like to sell other things, like stained glass, that would sell better in the city than in South Charleston, so they were glad for different opportunities.”

Johnston hosted Rose City’s grand opening in November, and it was a huge success.

“Long story short – Springfield turned out,” she says of the support she has had from local shoppers.

“The thing I love most about his whole experience is that I’m really just steering a ship that’s full of small businesses. I’m a vendor shop. I’m a shop full of small businesses,” Johnston says. “It’s beneficial to me because I didn’t have to buy all the inventory to have all the things in the store, and it’s beneficial to them because they’re makers and they don’t have to have their own storefront to be able to sell what they make.”

Johnston calls opening Rose City Boutique “transformative,” adding, “It’s great to watch people come in, and shop, and to escape the exhaustion of the world for a bit.

“I feel like the fun of shopping has been a little bit ruined in the Covid world, and it’s been fun being able to inject that back into the community a little bit.”

Johnston is starting to host maker workshops at the boutique, with plenty of space to socially distance. She’s open to booking private classes and even private shopping hours for people who might have health concerns during this time.

And, Johnston is proud to be among the current small business growth and development in Springfield. She looks forward to collaborating more with other local entrepreneurs and hopes the area where her shop is located with attract other small businesses to grow another shopping/dining district in the future.

“Right now, there’s so much energy and momentum – the train is moving toward Springfield getting better and better and better,” Johnston says. “This does not feel like a town on the decline. There’s a good momentum in this town right now and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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