La Casa Bella

La Casa Bella

<b>Owner: </b>

Carmie Giuliano

<b>Short bio: </b>

Born in Connecticut, the oldest of three in a wonderful Italian family. Hence, La Casa Bella, "the beautfiul home." Graduate of the College of New Rochelle (NY) a Catholic women's college, then on to The Travelers Insurance Co. for 16 years in their human resources department. Both desiring a new experience, my husband (a banker) and I packed up for Sarasota, Fla., and plunged into retailing. For 16 years (where have I seen that number?) we owned one and then two successful gift shops. After several years of hearing our store managers say "Ready when you are," we sold to them in 2002 and, ready for another life chapter, visited Alexandria at the suggestion of a friend, and fell in love.

<b>Why did you choose this particular business? </b>

I love my shop — it is fun and happy, and has a wonderful eclectic mix of unusual things. I have never been someone to "collect" something; my focus has always been too broad. At home I have the traditional china, silver, and crystal, but when friends come for diner I love to mix in special family pieces and pieces I have picked up along the way, so that the table is fun and interesting. My first shop on King Street, only 10 feet wide, didn't permit much beyond our core business of fine European linens. When we heard about the potential availability of our new location, we were more than ready to move on and expand. La Casa Bella in its new, larger space has enabled me once again to indulge my roving eye.

<b>Why did you choose to work for yourself? </b>

As I said before, Bill and I both had long-term experiences in large corporate environments. While those were important learning and enjoyable years we sensed a desire for a new adventure, and working for yourself is indeed a grand adventure. No matter where I've worked — either corporately or for myself — I have always been proud of my successes and disappointed in my failures. My attitude is the same. It's just that when you work for yourself you have more direct control and the consequences are up close and personal. In our case, moving almost 1500 miles to try something new with no prior experience and putting all of our savings at risk, we left family and friends wondering if "adventure" was the right description.

<b>What have you learned from being in business? </b>

I have been a retail business owner for many years now and one thing that stands out to me is that every day is different. I smile when I think back to our supremely confident early years, for time has taught me that what I can't control far exceeds that which I can control. And those uncontrollables — world events, political events, the economy, mother nature, catalog and on-line shopping, are some that immediately come to mind — can and do have a greater relative impact on very small businesses such as mine. I clearly remember a time in Florida when our sales volume had been steadily declining for a year before our government decided to announce that perhaps our economy was about to slip into recession. My point is that the little guy is often the first to know and the last to recover.

<b>Share an anecdote of a challenging or humorous experience or biggest surprise learned from working your business: </b>

In the early 90s Sarasota was hit by what became famously known as the "no name storm" — some 21 inches of rain in about a day and a half. Our shop was on a barrier island and I will never forget the late night call informing us that one of our windows had blown in and our shop was flooding. The storm had been born frighteningly quick and took everyone by surprise. There we were at midnight wading through six inches of water, inventory and fixtures floating and buckling. Days with huge fans running helped to dry us out, but the damage was significant. Luckily my practical ex-banker husband had made sure we were well-insured. Friends and employees pitched in and we turned the tragedy into a new adventure — new carpeting, new fixtures, and other updates and renovations.

<b>Advantages and/or disadvantages of operating a business in Alexandria: </b>

I have found owning a business in Alexandria to be very different from my Florida experience. In Florida we were in a tourism-dominated location. Even the 'local' population was largely seasonal and I felt a certain disconnect.

Old Town is almost the exact opposite. Yes, it is a tourist destination, but this is an area with a strong local population which has a wonderful sense of community. This is not to say that local support of local businesses is automatic. We remind ourselves every day that the residents' support is something we must earn.

The people here have been wonderful, especially since I have reopened. So many new people have stopped to welcome me to the neighborhood and old friends are delighted to have me back. In the few years I have been here I feel very strongly connected to Alexandria.

<b>Manager: </b>

I don't have a manager, but I do have a wonderful silent partner in my husband. We have worked together — day in and day out — since 1986. Even though he is now semi-retired he continues to be my guiding force — and my accountant.

<b>Key staff: </b>

At the moment I am being ably assisted on a part-time basis by a friend and neighbor, Loredana Diamantopoulos. Born in Italy and with retailing experience of her own there, she has been very helpful with merchandise selection and display, and also with my study of the Italian language.

<b>Description of services and/or products: </b>

Our traditionally strong offerings of fine European linens have, in our new larger space, been augmented by an attractive collection of decorataive accessories, fashion accessories, jewelry and gifts. A whole wing of the shop has been dedicated to an array of absolutely delightful things for kids — great books, apparel accessories, bedding, funny furry creatures and much, much more.