The cute front window of Karma Boutique
At the corner of Selby and Snelling in St Paul, Minnesota, sit charming brick buildings which house locally-owned boutiques, cafés, and coffeeshops. The area has its own quirky charm, from hanging flower baskets to wrought iron details, and boho chic Karma Boutique fits right in. With high ceilings, brightly-painted walls, and bare floors, the boutique has a warm, inviting feel. I’ve been a regular shopper since the store was located in its original location on Grand Ave., and followed it when it moved in September 2014.
The current owners, Jesse and Wynn Barber, bought the store from its original owner in early 2015. “The owner, Jada, just called me out of the blue and asked if we wanted to buy the store,” says Jesse, talking to me one night while we all crammed into the front window. The previous owner was a long-standing friend who knew about the sisters’ dream of going into business together, and Jesse had worked for her briefly when the store first opened.
Jesse had just finished her MBA at Concordia University and had her son, Wynn had cut back on her hours as a restaurant manager and also had a child, and both of them wanted more flexibility in their schedule. As Wynn puts it, “It’s really nice not having to answer to anyone else – we’re in control. It’s stressful, but freeing.” Only four years apart in age the sisters have a relationship they describe as “complimentary” rather than competitive, with a camaraderie and warmth to their banter that adds to the neighborhood feel of the store. Regulars wander in just to chat, like dropping by a friend’s house, and both of the sisters enjoy connecting with their customers and getting to know them.
Brightly-colored, fun and unique styles fill the racks. They only order one pack of every item on their racks, and very rarely re-order. That means that if you pair the small teal top with an adorable beaded necklace and skinny jeans - all of which come in at under seventy dollars - you’re not going to run into four other women in the downtown skyways wearing the same outfit. Accessories are fun, bold and inexpensive – their ten dollar earring rack gets me every time. And the average price point isn’t an accident.
Ten dollar earrings galore!
“I think it’s a misconception that you have to be rich to shop in a boutique,” Jesse tells me, while Wynn wanders off to bounce her six month year old baby girl. “Boutique shopping should be accessible to everyone - every woman should be able to get cute, quality clothes at an affordable price.” Their variety appeals to a variety of women; mothers and daughters will shop together and both find something they like. They want customers to feel like they can shop in their sweatpants and still buy a pretty dress, and note that often customers come in looking for something to wear that night or the next day.
For them, being part of a community extends outside the boutique’s walls. Three or four times a year they partner with local charities to meet the needs of local women. They have offered discounts to customers who bring in clothing donations for Dress for Success, worked with Susan G. Komen, and ran a food drive for the nearby Hailey Q. Brown foodshelf, which served over 14,000 in 2015. In their viewpoint, it’s a privilege to be a local business owner, and they want to help other women reach that independence.
When I ask them if they are feminists Wynn tells the story of listening to Gloria Steinem on NPR. “She was saying that if you think women should be paid the same, and have equal opportunities, then you’re a feminist. That made sense to me.” Wynn shrugs, like this is something so basic it shouldn’t need explanation. When asked if they think that going into their own business was an outgrowth of their feminism, Wynn states it simply but perfectly, “Anytime you do something to make yourself independent, it’s a feminist act.”
Throughout the interview Wynn has been checking in on her six-year old daughter and bouncing her baby on her hip. When we take photographs together the baby goes in the car seat, positioned to face mom. Those daughters have inspired and informed both her decision to become a business owner and to call herself a feminist. “I want my girls to be proud of being a woman, to be who they want to be and to know that if they love clothes and dressing up it doesn’t make you less intelligent.”
The two sisters, Jesse on the left and Wynn on the right.
The sisters have big plans for the store, and hope to add another location across the river in Minneapolis soon. Though they don’t plan on being in retail forever, they do plan on remaining partners in whatever they do in the future. Like their ties to the community, the bonds of sisterhood run deep. And, in my opinion, the store’s inviting atmosphere is a natural outgrowth of the warmth between its owners.
Photography by J.R. Anderson