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Back in the Saddle

Clifton Saddlery, snatched from the jaws of death, prepares for grand reopening.

The Clifton Saddlery is preparing for a three-day grand reopening celebration near the end of this month. Not that it ever closed. This apparent defiance of the laws of physics, however, is still less of a curiosity than the celebration’s featured guest: Thumbelina, the world’s smallest horse.

A dwarf miniature horse, Thumbelina is the size of a terrier — 17 1/2 inches tall — and she will be at the saddlery on Saturday, May 26 and Sunday, May 27, from 12-4 p.m. the first two days of the reopening, said Jane Wheeler, who handles the store’s public relations. On Saturday, while Thumbelina holds the children’s attention, adults can seek merchandise and advice from at least 10 vendors of horse-related products, who will be on-site from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m..

"And we’re still having our grand reopening on Monday; it’s just that [Thumbelina] won’t be here," said Wheeler, noting that raffles take place on all three days for horse-related merchandise, and food will be provided by Baja Fresh. Proceeds from the raffles, as well as Thumbelina’s appearance fee and any personal donations, go the Thumbelina Children’s Foundation, which benefits the Foundation for Children with Cancer and two horse-related children’s programs, Equi-kids and the Equine Alliance.

Store employee Dot Cerruti explained that the store’s former owner, Sue Clairmonte, had been planning to retire after 19 years and was within days of closing the store when Liz Nuti, a horse enthusiast who lives nearby, snapped up the business in early January. "All the other mom-and-pops have closed down," said Cerruti.

Then, the building where the store rents space was sold, and Nuti was not certain whether she would still have a lease in a few months, so she stopped ordering merchandise. But the store never quite closed, and the upcoming celebration is to mark its rebirth under new management.

"Since word had gotten out that it had closed, we felt it was important to keep this store open no matter what," said Nuti. She is an accountant who runs a company called Accounting and Tax Solutions Inc.. She is also an owner of four horses who lives in Fairfax Station and, she said, "the thought of not having the Clifton Saddlery here in Clifton was too much to bear, really. It’s an icon."

She brought the rest of her family into the business as well, she said. Her husband and two sons have been helping with the remodeling work and the Web site, and her daughter works in the store on Sundays and has been "an integral part of purchasing decisions."

IN ADDITION TO refurbishing the store’s interior, Nuti, having secured her lease, is turning the storage room into a gift shop that will offer horse-themed dishes, crystal, frames, jewelry and other items. She is trying to get a front door installed that would open directly into the store. She said she is bringing in new products, including dressage and hunting apparel and products by the Stübben Company, and she hopes to expand within the building that houses the store.

However, Nuti said, "people have loved it for 19 years, so we don’t want to change it too much." She is keeping the same staff, including Clairmonte. This, she said, will be the key to her success in the face of competition from the new Dover Saddlery in Chantilly, a large equestrian emporium.

"What’s going to make us stand out is customer service," said Nuti, noting that the employees have all been on staff for more than four years and know their customers personally. "To have a person with knowledge assisting you is what’s important," she said.

Nuti said she also wants to be a "neighbor to the community," hosting children’s events and equestrian education functions. Already, she has received significant appreciation from neighbors, for the simple act of taking over the store. "At the beginning, we were receiving tons, but we’re still receiving e-mails thanking us," she said.