HOTSEAT- Shoe fits? Scarpa's Gardner shares secrets

When Amy Gardner decided to attend the University of Virginia's architecture school, she didn't realize that what she'd end up building was a retail empire.

Now 13 years old and occupying twice its original footprint, her upscale shoe store, Scarpa, has outlived competitors and spawned another business downtown.

How did someone without business training end up creating two small boutiques that have become colorful staples of a colorful town?

"I knew I didn't know anything," Gardner admits, "so I asked a lot of questions. I figured somebody knows it somewhere, and I have to find that person and get the information."

Although the local retail sector may seem like it's expanding to Northern Virginia-like proportions, it wasn't that way back in 1993.

"There wasn't a lot of shopping in Charlottesville," says Gardner. "I was surprised at the lack of choice."

The additional shoe competition that eventually arose lured away very few of Scarpa's loyal patrons. "I think creating relationships with customers is important," Gardner says. "I don't want to sell something to you today and never see you again."

Although at the consumer level, shoe shopping is a breeze, Gardner says she spends many grueling days behind the scenes assembling Scarpa's premium selection.

"It takes a lot of energy, concentration, and decision making," she says.

In search of the perfect shoes, Gardner must travel far and wide to trade shows that frequently last three days. There, she spends hours scheduling appointments with designers and "working the line" to see what various companies have on display.

"Depending on the vendor, I either pick from materials they offer or detail the shoe to make it unique," she explains.

In the last five years, Gardner has been traveling to Europe in search of shoes, to cities like Paris, Milan, Florence, and Venice. Though she recently spent time at a large trade show in Las Vegas, the bulk of her stock comes from New York.

Although much of Gardner's accomplishments are due to her skill in cultivating selection and customer service, love of the product certainly fits into the equation.

"Shoes were what I spent my first baby-sitting money on when I was 12," Gardner remembers. "I don't know that I can explain the fascination, just that it has been there for 20 years."

Shoes aren't the only items that send Gardner into a frenzy.

"I'm an office supply geek– it must be a holdover from back-to-school shopping," she says.

While shopping for stationery on a trip to New York, Gardner noticed many products that weren't available at home, which inspired her to open a paper boutique. Rockpaperscissors, which will be four years old this November, offers unusual office supplies, stationery, and custom printing.

"People ask if I like one business better than the other, and that would be like deciding between children," Gardner says. "They both give me heartache and joy for different reasons."

With Scarpa's major inventory expansion over the years, and the addition of her stationery store, it wouldn't be a surprise if Gardner decided to change strokes at some point.

"I like helping people market their small business," she says, "so maybe interior design and small business consulting might be possible."

Age: A few weeks away from 37.

Why here? Moving to NY when I graduated from college wasn't in the cards, and now my roots are so deep I can't see myself leaving.

What's worst about living here? Watching farmland disappear

Favorite hangout? Any quiet place with the latest New Yorker.

Most overrated virtue? I have nothing for you here. I'm boring. I think they're all valuable.

People would be surprised to know: I can make anything better with condiments.

What would you change about yourself? Lutheran guilt

Proudest accomplishment? Being headstrong enough to start a business at 24 when other people said it couldn't be done.

People find most annoying about you: I'm too independent and too stubborn.

Whom do you admire? Red Cross volunteers; people who put their lives on hold to help other people.

Favorite book? It is so 8th grade, but The Count of Monte Cristo unabridged.

Subject that causes you to rant? Bad design. Practically everything involves a design decision– don't settle.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The possibility that I could clone my dog.

Biggest 21st-century creep-out? The cult of celebrities who haven't actually accomplished anything. Why should anyone care about Paris Hilton?

What do you drive? '91 Mercedes wagon. I'm a wagon kind of girl.

In your car CD player right now: Nada. It's NPR or quiet.

Next journey? NYC this Saturday for work.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I'm sorry, you didn't specify what kind of trouble.

Regret: Times I have not communicated clearly or behaved professionally

Favorite comfort food: Mac and cheese

Always in your refrigerator: Cheese. It's a reason to get up in the morning.

Must-see TV: The News Hour on PBS on the days I get home in time, and 24 religiously for five years.

Favorite cartoon: You want me to pick? I can't. Looney Toons and Home Movies on Adult Swim.

Describe a perfect day. Lots of coffee, lots of reading, time at the gym, a long walk with my dog and cooking a big dinner for my boyfriend and close friends

Walter Mitty fantasy: It involves a chartered boat off the coast of Greece, rock climbing in Nepal, and speaking fluent French in Paris.

Who'd play you in the movie? Why would you want to make a movie?

Most embarrassing moment? Trying to punch a 6'3" guy at the Sugar Bowl in 1991 after we "exchanged words." Needless to say, there was a little alcohol involved.

Best advice you ever got? Be accountable; at the end of the day all you have is your reputation.

Favorite bumper sticker? Has it been four years yet?