A throwback to old-style boutiques

Sarita Chiquita Boutique
Owner: Sarah Cativo
Type of Business: Clothing boutique
Location: 183 Angell St., Providence
Employees: 2 (including owner)
Year Founded: 2003
Annual Sales: WND

Angell Street store aims to be friendly, eclectic, fun – and affordable

Sarita Chiquita Boutique was founded on the belief that a boutique experience should be fun, friendly and affordable. After nearly three years in business and recognition in a local publication’s recent readers’ survey, the plan seems to have worked.

“Growing up in Providence, there so many boutiques where everybody knew your name,” owner Sarah Cativo said. “Then they closed and in their place came the franchises of the world. When the little boutiques opened again, they were snobby, and I hated that.”

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So she aimed to change that with the kind of boutique she remembered from her childhood.

In 2003, with $5,000, a background in the fashion and jewelry industry and a degree in fashion merchandising, she rented a less-than-300-square-foot space on Angell Street and prepared to realize her dream.

“It was something I always had in mind,” Cativo said, “and one day I saw in the paper that the space was available. When I came in, I fell in love with it.”

But there was a surprise in store.

“Four days after I quit my job to open the store, I found out I was pregnant,” she said.
Though the pregnancy prevented her from doing some of what the things she’d hoped to do, such as the grassroots advertising, it didn’t extinguish her excitement about the store. That opened as planned, the first week of September 2003. To her delight, it was a success.

“The timing was perfect, with the students coming back,” she said. “I think if I had opened in August, when it was slower, I might have been disappointed.”

The boutique was perfect for the college crowd, featuring fun jewelry, chic handbags and clothes to fit a variety of styles. But Cativo said she doesn’t just aim to please the students.

“Even though my demographic is students and the East Siders, I like to think I have something for everyone,” she said. “It’s an eclectic, colorful mix.”

Despite the boutique’s being geared to the styles of women 16 to 35 years old, Cativo said, she has many customers who don’t fit that mold.

“I have some women come in who are 50, and are just the most fabulous, stylish women, and they find things,” she said.

She also makes sure that her store isn’t exclusive because of the prices.
“Instead of buying designer items, I find things that are made in the U.S. and are affordable.

“Many of my prices rival the mall stores, and I take great pride in that,” she said. “I feel that there’s no reason you can’t have special items without spending a fortune. No one has a fortune anymore.”

She strives to create a comfortable environment, as well.

“I never want people to feel pressured here. If I see someone wavering with an item, I’m the first one to say, ‘Don’t get it, and if you change your mind, come back,’ ” Cativo said. “I don’t believe in pushing people – because if you get home and don’t like it, you’re not going to want to come back.”

That’s not to say her customers don’t get plenty of attention.

One of the services provided by Sarita Chiquita is “boutique by appointment,” which Cativo suggests as a gift. It entails having the boutique filled with the lucky person’s favorite flowers, music and food, then letting her and her friends have the whole store to themselves, to shop and “play dress-up.”

“I want people to feel special. People don’t feel special anymore when they shop – it’s like an assembly line,” she said. “Here, I know most of my customers by name.”

As her daughter’s due date approached, in early 2004, “it was a real sense of community,” Cativo said. “I had people that would come in just to check on me. And after she was born, people came in to see her.”

For Cativo this proved she had re-created the feeling she remembered from the boutiques where she once shopped with her mother and the ones she frequented as a teen. “It’s a little nostalgic for the boutiques that used to be on Thayer Street,” she said.
And while her shop “isn’t going to make a million,” Cativo said, “it is self sufficient.

“I feel like I’ve survived during a time when retail has been taking a hit. They say most small businesses fail within the first three years, but I’m almost there.”