- Associated Press - Sunday, April 23, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - Operating a clothing boutique normally requires long hours and stamina.

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2pgaRLk ) reports Alexandra Kaldis Venzke had neither of those last year when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

Venzke, 31, owns a clothing boutique called Sultana’s Daughter in River Oaks. It’s part of a unique business co-op called The Shops Off Westheimer, which has a 25-year history in the area.

“A space became available back in 2013, which almost never happens,” she said. “They call this place a ‘sisterhood,’ instead of a co-op, because many of these women have been working together for 20 years or more.”

Her fellow shopkeepers managed Venzke’s boutique during her treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.



“I never could have done it without them,” Venzke said. “Normally that would mean the end of a shop, but these women made sure mine stayed open.”

Venzke joined The Shops Off Westheimer in 2013 when another merchant retired. She kept the store stocked with the same women’s clothing brands as always, until her illness made her rethink her business priorities.

“All of a sudden, I couldn’t go to market anymore in L.A. and Dallas,” Venzke said. “And it was like a light bulb went off in my head. Here I was, wanting to offer these unique things you couldn’t find anywhere else, but I was going to these big marketplaces to get them. That’s when I decided to get back to my real passion, which is promoting ‘wearable art.’?”

Even in a retail environment where e-commerce is ascendant, a specialized co-op like The Shops Off Westheimer “can really work well when it’s done right,” said Jason Baker, a principal in Houston commercial real estate firm Baker Katz. They can do especially well in more affluent, high-density parts of town.

“People are spending more time thinking through the details now,” he said. “If executed right - getting the right tenant mix, making sure there’s adequate parking, things like that - some of these alternative retail environments can be very successful.”

At Sultana’s Daughter, Venzke offers hand-painted scarves and one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, in addition to carrying Los Angeles designers Sam & Lavi and Cotton Citizen. The hand-painted scarves come courtesy of her husband, Houston artist James Brummett.

Brummett is an oil painter who has exhibited at museums and other venues.

“I wore a dress he hand-dyed to the opening of his show at the Contemporary Arts Museum a few years ago, and people couldn’t get enough of it,” she said. “So we recently decided to make them available to my customers. To me, fashion will always be about having wearable art.”

The name of Venzke’s boutique is a nod to her mother. Venzke grew up in a large Greek family, known in Houston for their real-estate holdings. As a child, people constantly asked for her mother’s name, since the Kaldis clan includes seven siblings. She always replied, “Sultana’s Daughter,” and the name stuck.

“It’s hard to earn money in retail, but I’m giving myself five years to earn a profit,” Venzke said. “That’s normally how long it takes in the clothing industry.”

To do that, Venzke plans to include even more pieces of “wearable art” in the store.

“My whole family shops there,” said customer Lisa O’Leary said. “I’m 60, and my youngest child is 26, but we all find something we love. It’s one of those places where there’s just something for everyone.”

Venzke also offers her wares online, though she said her heart belongs to the brick-and-mortar store.

“I love helping people find something that makes them feel comfortable and look great,” Venzke said. “People come to my store because they know I’ll always give them an honest opinion, and they’ll never feel like they have to buy something.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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