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Eggplant gift boutique takes a new owner

Lawrence Pierce
Elisa Payne is surrounded by colorful and seasonal goods filling the Bridge Road shop Eggplant, which she and her husband recently purchased.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Elisa Payne likes to quote her husband's assessment. "He says it was cheaper to buy me the store than for me to continue to work in the store."

The store she is referring to is Eggplant, the glittering, glamorous magnet that draws customers from South Hills and beyond to the Bridge Road shops.

In early October, she and her husband, Charles K. Payne IV, bought the store from longtime owner Thebe Warren. They signed the papers, exchanged money and then everyone went back to the store for a champagne toast.

Warren, who bought the gift shop in 1996 and expanded it, is moving back to her home state of Texas on Friday.

"I loved having the shop and I loved living in Charleston, but I am ready for the next chapter in my life," Warren said. "I am so happy to see Eggplant continue. It will be in good hands with Elisa."

Although Elisa Payne jokes that she has been a shopper-in-training for 47 years, this is the first time the mother of three has worked for herself.

"I love it, I have no regrets. I'm not afraid to make mistakes," Payne said.

Payne started working a couple of days a week at the upscale gift shop seven years ago, mainly to get out of the house for a while. Her husband's business, Engine Sales and Service, had dissolved and he was at home along with their young children.

Over the years she added hours and got to know the customers very well. "I've met lots of people. I am a very social person," she said.

For now, Eggplant customers will see little change in the shop full of bright Christmas decorations, Vera Bradley bags, greeting cards, gourmet food items, unusual jewelry, children's clothing and an ever-revolving selection of gift items that are, in Payne's words, "anything but ordinary."

She would like to carry more locally made products. Eggplant already sells items by Wallace Metal Works of Charleston, Blenko glass and Adam Morton's hand-poured candles in decorative cut wine bottles as well as a few books by area writers. "There are people who do great work in this town, in this state," she said.

Likewise, customers will be served by the same employees plus a few new faces -- friends of Payne's. "I have a great staff -- and friends," she said.

The shop windows and store displays are put together by Susan Bliss, who has worked at Eggplant for 15 years. "She has a flair for design. Her parents used to have Jan's Flowers," said Payne. "I give her full rein."

Whitney Rey, who works with decorator Pat Bibbee, "has a great eye," and Nancy Abcouwer oversees the printing department, where unique invitations, cards and stationery can be ordered.

"It's nice to see everyone's talents come out," said Payne, adding later, "I'm no micromanager."

Despite individual contributions, Payne said, "All of us do the wrapping. Even my husband is going to learn to gift wrap."

Free gift wrapping is one of the perks of shopping at Eggplant. Another advantage is that the staff probably knows the recipient of the gift and what things she likes.

Payne smiles. "The men. They come in with that deer-in-the-headlights look. They don't want to be here; they are out of their element."

The staff knows to help them as fast as possible, but it's store policy to greet every customer and to check back with them. "It's that local feel. We really know our customers."

It's not unusual for a customer to call in a purchase. "We ring it up, box it and may run it out to the car."

To encourage young mothers to enter a shop full of breakables, Payne said there is a children's table with paper and crayons in the foyer outside the shop. The doors to the outside are too heavy for a child to push open.

"I love to see people with children up here," said Payne. "We have suckers behind the counters. It's family-friendly."

As for her own family, they know they aren't going to see much of her in November and December. She said her husband enjoys being at home with their children, ages 13, 11 and 9, and he'll serve as the shop's accountant.

"I tell people he's in charge of accounts payable, and I'm in charge of accounts spendable."

She'll go to the Atlanta gift market for the first time in January. Thebe Warren will go with her. And although she knows the tastes of Eggplant's core customers, she hopes to add her own style. She likes bling and quirky.

Payne also wants to develop an app for Eggplant, re-energize its website and establish a Facebook presence.

Payne has a journalism degree in advertising as well as a master's in business from West Virginia University. She was assistant general manager for the WVU student newspaper The Daily Athenaeum and worked in advertising for Gino's and Tudor's restaurants and Stone & Thomas department store before settling down as a stay-at-home mom for several years.

"This is my forte," Payne said, looking around the colorful, sparkling shop last week. "I love this job. I am happy to be here."

Eggplant and the other locally owned shops and restaurants on Bridge Road "are an important part of Charleston. I am proud to have been a part of that," said Warren.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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