Shoe-lottesville: Über footwear options explode

If the shoe fits, buy it. That's what the owners of two new upscale shoe stores are hoping locals will do. But competition in the shoe market is as stiff as a new Mary-Jane.

Scarpa, a decade-old bastion of fashionable footwear in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, is putting its best foot forward with an expansion, and Richey & Co., also at Barracks Road, has toe-nailed a niche in the market for comfortable imports. Can the newcomers find a way to sell their soles?

"We do have a different niche," says Elizabeth "Binky" Wheeler, owner of new "shoetique" Sweet Beets, which opened August 19 on Garrett Street.

Wheeler says she and business partner Cate McConnell are focusing on shoes that are "like we are– very feminine, flirty, playful."

They chose Garrett Street, an up-and-coming shopping district, for its ample parking and proximity to the Downtown Mall. A year from now, ACAC will open a 35,000-sqare-foot health club nearby.

The two say they their pre-opening market research showed that for women– particularly mothers of young children– shoes and accessories are often the only way to "express individuality." To that end, Sweet Beets also offers handbags, jewelry, and hair accessories.

But expressing individuality does come with a price. A pair of knee-high mohair boots retails for more than $400, while many of the funky pumps and mules can top $200.

For those on a tighter budget, the second new store, Shoos, which opened on Elliewood Avenue on the Corner on August 6, may be a safer bet.

Owned by Jim Norwood, who also owns New Balance and Birkenstock of Virginia on 29 North, Shoos sells classic comfortwear like Birkenstock for men and women, but also carries women's dress shoes by designers such as Via Spiga, Kenneth Cole, and Vanelli. With prices ranging from $100 to $150, the selection may be more within reach for students and less affluent others.

Tapping into that market is one goal of Scarpa's expansion.

In early October, says Scarpa owner Amy Gardner, she'll open the doors to a new store, The Great State Of, in the former London's space adjacent to Scarpa at Barracks Road.

"Scarpa is very boutique, very feminine," she explains. The Great State Of is going to be "a little more utilitarian," she says, with peg board, a concrete floor, basic lighting, and aluminum detailing: "It's designed more with guys and a more casual female in mind."

"We want to separate higher dollar options from the $100 weekend clogs," she says.

Gardner says patrons will be able to pay for purchases at either store, even though the businesses have separate names and entrances (though there'll be an opening between them).

Longtime Scarpa customer Melissa McAllister says that while she's excited about the new options, she'll always be loyal to Scarpa. "Amy's so good at what she does," says McAllister. "There's so much about being in business that's just being really smart and having good customer service and making sure that you're making money."

While Scarpa may have proven itself over the 10 years since it opened, Cindy McClelland, co-owner of the Water Street boutique, Eloise, believes both stores can thrive.

"It's darling, and they're nice," says McClelland of Sweet Beets and its owners. "That they were brave enough to go over where they are makes the town bigger and more expansive and more wonderful."

And as far as McClelland is concerned, new business is good for Charlottesville, whose shoppers have been know to trek to Richmond, Tysons, and Washington. "This gives the customer one more place to go," she says. "The more we can keep shoppers here, the better off we are."

Meeting at a girls' night out led Cate McConnell (above) and Binky Wheeler to open Sweet Beets.