After more than 115 years in operation, I think it’s safe to say that one of the most lasting fixtures of downtown Westerly is Woodmansee’s. Despite many changes to the scene over the years, the boutique that prides itself on providing beautiful clothing and accessories for the young at heart continues to thrive.
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First opened in 1904 by LeClyde Woodmansee, the store began as a gift shop and then branched out into bridal registry, before being purchased by Joyce and Peter Ruici in 1976. Joyce had worked at another gift shop downtown and had been working for her cousin at a pharmacy in town at the time that the store became available. “Do you want to know the truth?” Joyce asked, conspiratorially. “It was a spur of the moment decision to buy it. I heard it was for sale so I just called the Washington Trust and they loaned me the money and away I went. Peter only found out after I’d gotten the loan.”
From that one quick decision and subsequent phone call came decades of service to Westerly and three generations of working women in Joyce’s family. “I’m 85 and I still work but only when the spirit moves me. My daughter Maria and granddaughter Anna Maria run the two stores now,” Joyce explained referring to both Woodmansee’s and its “little sister” store next door, Woodees.
Anna Maria opened Woodees six years ago, when she was still barely out of high school. “It was pretty spur of the moment, honestly,” Anna Maria said during a separate interview, unknowingly echoing her grandmother. “I had spent a semester at college and I hated it, I was really undecided and kind of wasting my time and energy, but then my mom called about the space next door opening up and I just knew right away that’s what I wanted to do.” Upon hearing the similarities between her business ownership origins and her grandmother’s, Anna Maria laughed and said “I guess it’s in my blood!”
For many years, most bridal couples in the area registered for their engagement, shower, and wedding gifts at Woodmansee’s, for their fine selection of China, crystal, and flatware. Over time, however, Joyce began to gradually introduce new items at the store, such as clothing and accessories. “It was just a very small section of the store at first, but people like what we chose and it just took off from there,” Joyce explained.
To keep a clothing boutique running successfully for decades is no small feat, given the fast pace of fashion trends and the fact that the store’s location in an area known primarily as a summer destination. However, Woodmansee’s team has found a way to thrive – namely, taking the time to get to know their customer base. “Luckily, my grandmother has established such a big following over the years – we have regulars who faithfully support us year round and we really know them well,” Anna Maria explained. “A lot of times we’ll be looking at samples and I’ll say ‘oh my gosh, that looks like Lisa.’ We know so-and-so comes in every Tuesday and this is what she likes so we make sure we have new stuff they’ll enjoy every week.”
Anna Maria feels that she, Joyce, and Maria have similar taste in some ways but also very different taste in others and that this is advantageous for their customers, who tend to gravitate towards a classic style but run the gamut in terms of age and lifestyles. Woodees is geared a little bit younger than Woodmansee’s but still sees a lot of crossover traffic from next door and there are many brands that are available at both shops. “Our customers vary,” Anna explained. “We’ve got some regulars who are high school girls, just hyped to get a new outfit for a presentation, or young professionals who stop in every week to add something new to their wardrobe, or mothers and daughters coming in together. Just all sorts of really rad people, and we wouldn’t be here without them.”
These regulars, paired with lots of hard work and a little good luck, have helped Joyce and her family withstand the years and weather the typical business challenges. As Joyce explained, “When we first started, I was helping to unload the China from the trucks. We really started from the bottom.”
Joyce went on to reflect about the gradual change of the retail scene in Westerly, particularly in relation to the downtown renaissance, recalling that during her first years downtown there were four or five dress shops, three shoe stores, another gift shop, a pharmacy, and three or four banks. “I’m very excited about the revitalization of Westerly, it’s wonderful to be downtown at night now,” Joyce shared. “Through the years, we’ve had people suggest that we move to their area, or open up at the mall – but I always refuse, because I love being downtown.”
Anna Maria also spoke to the requests and demands for more Woodmansee’s and Woodees stores beyond Westerly. “People come to us and say ‘Oh, you should open one here, you should open one there, and I wish you sold online,’ but I think the important thing for us is to keep growing as a brick and mortar store right here. This is my baby and I feel like I couldn’t nurture another store that was so far away and that it would lose something. We just want to keep making people here feel good – keep it simple, classic, OG. Why complicate things?”
Be sure to stop by the shops soon and see why Woodmansee’s has withstood the test of time and why Woodees is sure to follow suit!