By Patty Guerra The Modesto Bee.
A few years ago, Darlene Dover was a middle school teacher who flipped real estate -- buying properties, fixing them up and then selling them for a profit -- on the side. Then the housing market fell apart.
So Dover, with the support of her husband, Scott, a Merced County sheriff's deputy, opened a clothing boutique in Atwater called Envy.
This was in 2008. Among other items, Dover sells high-end jeans that cost up to $250 per pair -- for men, as well as women. And her store opened in California's Central Valley, among the hardest hit regions of the country when the Great Recession hit that year. So, obviously, Dover's idea was doomed to fail, right?
Envy soon expanded into the space next door to the original shop. In 2011, Dover opened a second store on Main Street in Turlock. The following year, she opened a store in Modesto's McHenry Village. And just last week, a new Envy opened on North Blackstone Avenue in Fresno.
"I had no idea," said Dover, who assumed she would take a couple of years off from teaching to operate her boutique. "Even now, I look back and there's never a day when I am not amazed and thankful."
Dover credits her success to hard work and knowing her market -- or, more accurately, learning her market.
She nearly stopped selling the premium denim jeans, with brands such as Miss Me, Hudson and True Religion, a few times. "But then the demand picked up."
In the early days, Dover spent just about all of her time at the store, accompanied by her then-infant son, Kason. A play area she put together for Kason ended up drawing other moms who liked having a safe place to put their children while they shopped. Because of that, Dover said, each Envy store has a child's play area.
Envy also makes use of a blend of new technology and old-fashioned customer service. Dover and her staff of roughly 30 are active on social media, posting specials on Facebook and Twitter almost daily. Those efforts bring the customers in, but it's the attention they receive once they arrive that keeps them.
"I would say social networking is the No. 1 reason for the growth of my business," she said.
The store has a popular layaway program. "All of these are layaways," Dover said, pointing to shelves lining two walls of her cramped office in Atwater. Parents have been known to use the store as a reward system for their children. Maybe they can't buy a pair of Miss Me jeans or Ugg boots right away, but they can put them on layaway and then the children can earn the money to pay off the items.
"Kids are inclined to earn the money," Dover said.
And so, apparently, are husbands. I asked if she had converted her husband into wearing the designer jeans.
"Oh, yeah," she said with a laugh. "He wore nothing but Wranglers. Now he and all his buddies are wearing $200 jeans."