Shoppers meander delightedly through an inviting shop on Southard Street, savoring the scent of candles and the silky softness of pajama pants made from bamboo. They sift happily through handmade greeting cards and treat their hands to a squirt of decadent body lotion while discovering new must-have items on every shelf, hook, rack and wall display.
Cottage, 526 Southard St., has pulled off the perfect combination of class and comfort in both its merchandising and its pricing.
The shop that's housed in the former Preferred Properties real estate office opened four years ago when the property's owner, Laurie McChesney, and her partner Dominique Barrera were dealing with the struggling housing market.
Instead of searching for a new tenant for the spot, McChesney, who owns the property, decided to open a small boutique specializing in garden supplies and gifts.
"It was first called Garden Cottage Key West," said Doug Harders, the manager and merchandiser who joined the venture two years ago and helped give the store its own unique identity.
"When the market started to improve, Laurie and Dominique really didn't have the time to devote to the shop," Harders said. "That's when I came on board. And I'd hear people standing out front reading the name of the store, saying, 'Oh, I don't need to go into a garden shop. So we changed the name to simply Cottage, changed out the product lines and have really come up with an wonderfully eclectic mix of items." The shop specializes in "home, garden and gifts," according to its sign, and offers something for everyone. There are pet beds, bird feeders, antique wash stands, wrought iron porch swings and silk scarves.
Shoppers often remark that they want one of everything, and if they can't have that, they'd be just as happy simply moving into the shop, which is divided into three rooms.
"We have home accessories, garden accessories, tea towels, and a lot of items that are made here in the U.S."
Cottage is Key West's exclusive retailer of the Spartina line of scarves, handbags and jewelry, while Thymes specializes in room sprays, diffusers, candles, soaps and lotions.
There are cocktail accessories, including bamboo drinking straws, Key West-embroidered throw pillows, assorted vintage hooks, racks, towels and reading glasses by EyeBobs.
Placemats look exactly like banana leaves while tiny tea candles are adorned with wax chickens and bumble bees.
"I get lost in here," said local attorney Susan Cardenas, who happened in on Thursday. "Every time I come I find something that I can't live without."
Key West businessman Bryan Green echoed her delight.
"Every time we have visitors, I bring them here, because you really can't find these things anywhere else in town anymore."
Harders likened some of the merchandise to items once available in the former Fast Buck Freddie's on Duval Street.
"We get a good mix of locals and tourists," he said. "And I get a lot of snowbirds who have just bought a home here and need to decorate it."
In Cottage, prices run the gamut from 65 cents for a bumble bee tea candle to $1,500 for a china cabinet, and the shop offers a rewards programs for its regular shoppers.
"With every $50 you spend, you get $5 back toward your next purchase," said Harders, who owned his own boutique in New York's Hudson River Valley for more than a decade. His partner, David Case, is a familiar fixture at the nearby corner of Southard and Simonton streets, where he welcomes guests to his restaurant, Sarabeth's.
"We really do have a something for everyone here and people do really enjoy wandering through," said Harders, expertly leading the way from one room of treasures to the next.