A last-minute gamble saves a struggling Whitesville business.
Written and Photographed by Zack Harold
Late last year sisters Jenny Elswick and Tammy Gordon were ready to close Farmer’s Daughters, their small primitives shop in Whitesville. Business was great when they opened the doors five years earlier, but sales had slowed to a trickle. Days sometimes passed without a single customer. They went two years without paying themselves. “We were making enough to pay our bills and that was it,” Elswick says. They set a deadline: They would close up shop if things didn’t turn around by the end of December.
But as the new year drew closer, Elswick realized she could not bear the thought of giving up. She and Gordon decided they would pray about it. It was then Elswick received what she believes was divine inspiration. “It was like—wham: Clothes!” she says. Instead of selling down-home furnishings, Farmer’s Daughters would become a chic women’s boutique. They enlisted the help of Elswick’s 25-year-old son Cody, who had spent years working at trendy clothing shops in Charleston. “Cody could sell a dead horse,” Gordon says. The sisters invested $1,000 each and placed an order with some clothing wholesalers for shirts, leggings, camisoles, purses, and scarves.
While they waited for their first shipment, Elswick and Gordon put in two weeks of 12-hour days revamping their space. They repurposed some of their oldtimey décor, repainting a vintage table to give it a modern look and stacking some old crates into a hip-looking centerpiece. They purchased metal piping to build clothing racks. They visited Good Samaritans, a local thrift store, where they scored a few full-size mirrors, a freestanding clothing rack, and a bunch of vintage suitcases.
Elswick and Gordon also began promoting their new boutique on Facebook. News spread fast, as it does in small towns. By the time The Farmer’s Daughters Gifts and Boutique re-opened on January 6, customers couldn’t even wait for the sisters to unpack their inventory. “There were people here waiting when we opened the boxes,” Gordon says. Women bought shirts before she could put them on the racks. That first shipment was completely sold out on the first day, and business has remained strong. Plans are already under way to expand the business and add shoes and children’s clothes to the shelves.
Around the time Gordon and Elswick were making their big gamble, Whitesville also was taking steps toward its own dramatic transformation. Tired of the stagnant economy, boarded-up storefronts, and ramshackle structures plaguing their home, residents rallied around the selection process for this year’s Turn This Town Around community improvement program, drumming up more than 23,000 online votes to beat out closest competitor Alderson, a town with twice as many citizens. For the next year, Whitesville will work with West Virginia Focus, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting to try to bring new life to the struggling Boone County community.
Whitesville citizens have many goals for the next year, most of which depend on attracting new businesses to their community. They can learn a lot from Farmer’s Daughters. “If it’s not working, change,” Gordon says. “We took a chance, and we did it. It’s amazing.” As business owners and lifelong Whitesville residents, few people want to see the town succeed as much as these enterprising sisters. “I think if we can do it, anybody can do it,” Elswick says.