A Woman and her Calling
If you’ve driven by the Hughes Design and Gift Gallery on National Rd. in Fulton, you’ve probably found yourself wondering about that fashionable, high-end “gift shop” tucked in among various auto-body and tire shops. And after a significant fire in the adjacent building in January caused a temporary closure to the shop, my curiosity was even more piqued. I’d gotten to know the proprietor, Mary Beth Hughes, over the years at different community and arts events, but I wanted to learn more about her story, and the story of her business, which – I had heard from several Wheeling-ites – is more than just a gift shop.
As I entered the building to meet with Mary Beth last week, I was greeted by the roar of carpet cleaning machines, partially stocked shelves, bright new LED lighting illuminating every lovely corner, and surrounded by freshly painted walls with bursts of color from a unique wall paper pattern. I had to wait my turn to approach her, because she was simultaneously signing for a UPS delivery and trouble-shooting some issue with a young staff member. The energy was palpable, and it was clear that after almost four months of being closed, the building itself was bursting to open its doors once again!
I followed Mary Beth up the stairs to her second floor, into what you might say is the heart of her interior design business: we visited rooms filled with fabric and wall-paper swatches, as well as the offices for her and her design assistant. From the peg-board-lined walls of the hallway that will soon once again display the work of her former brother-in-law (artist Joseph Hughes), to the original painting purchased at Wheeling’s first plein air event hanging in Mary Beth’s own office, it’s clear that her love and appreciation of beauty and style are what drive this small business. I did learn, however, that it wasn’t a love of design that first drove her to this profession, but a career-interest survey that she took at a Junior League event, through which she learned that she should become either a secretary or an interior designer. We all know what she chose, and she says that as soon as she started her courses at the The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, she was hooked.
“Oh I loved it. I had always been able to do colors, and that sort of thing, but it was tunnel vision. It was traditional. So I learned to do contemporary, eclectic, all sorts of stuff there.”
How it all Began
Mary Beth had a robust career in interior design even before opening her current business. Her first big “break” was proposing a design for a large Wheeling law office in the then Hawley Building, when she beat out two established interior design companies, which led to several residential design projects. Her career expanded from there: while living in Glen Dale and raising her three children, she had a small private practice for a few years, before being recruited by the Boury restaurant and hotel empire to design for them full-time, followed by a short stint at the Stone and Thomas department store. In 1991, after a couple of years of working for herself again, she outgrew her small home-office and purchased the current building at 600 National Rd., where the well-known Rybeck interior design firm had operated for years.
“I have always loved the design part,” she laughed, “but the gift shop is my folly! We would not have made money on the gift shop without the design business.” She went on to explain that she originally carried more expensive items, but soon learned that the gift shop would move more merchandise if she carried things that were more accessible to most of her Wheeling shoppers. “I would buy things that I loved. But I’d have to raise the price in order to sell it, that’s how you make money! And that didn’t always work.”
She began to lovingly transform this building (originally built in 1905 as a mattress factory) into her gift shop and interior design studio, adding to the building as her business grew. At one point, they became an exclusive seller of Vera Bradley products, which became a large part of the gift shop’s sales, and the success is what largely led to the increase in retail space. Even today, Vera Bradley – which has changed to appeal to a broader consumer space with the addition of leather products and others – is a real draw to the shop. “It’s coming back and it’s still a huge part of our market. We love that they’re doing leather, and doing things that appeal to a younger audience. We are moving it from our very back room to the center room in the shop.”
January 2017: A Fire
While in Atlanta on a buying trip, Mary Beth was alerted in the wee hours of the morning that the fire alarm was going off in the shop. She wasn’t too alarmed, until she was then informed that the building next door was on fire, and the fire department needed someone to open the door for them. The fire had been caused by a cigarette flicked into a planter outside of that adjacent building, which eventually ignited the potting soil until the planter itself exploded and flew into the window of the building, setting it ablaze. It wasn’t until she returned home from the trip that she realized the extent of the damage. While there was no fire or water damage, smoke had been sucked into her building through a set of attic fans, causing irreparable damage to merchandise and the interior offices and shop space, leading to a temporary closure of the store and some aspects of the design business.
Given the excellent support that she received from Panhandle Restoration services and Travelers insurance, Mary Beth was able to turn this fire into a bit of a blessing for the business. “We were at a point where we just needed an update anyway, and this was an opportunity to give a whole new clean, bright look. You know, a 26 year forced remodel isn’t all that bad!” They were able to refresh the entire space, including new paints, wall-coverings and new LED lights throughout the building. She also took this opportunity to clean out the attic, which held 25 years of design files. “I said, ‘If someone wants something from these files from 25 years ago, there’s something wrong there. We’re just going to say no!’ And here (in the studio), all of our shelving and bookcases were replaced.”
Another change is the repurposed back room in the shop area, which will now be filled with furniture to sell, as well as to be used by gathering customers. Mary Beth envisions a comfortable space for brides to sit and relax while choosing items for their registries, or to bring in specialists to give demonstrations and presentations to support the sales of certain merchandise. “Essential oils,” she gives as an example. “Everyone is interested in them, and we’ll have a specialist from Marietta come up and give presentations.” They will also be selling customizable stationery, and the gathering space in the store will give clientele the room they’ll need for viewing and designing their products.
Mary Beth will be celebrating the refreshed and renewed shop at a Grand Re-Opening celebration during the week of May 1. There will be give-aways and drawings, samples of the foods that are sold in the shop, presentations from local vendors such as Windswept Honey and jewelry-maker Joan Stamp, and even a “Sip ‘n’ Shop” with wine and hors d’oeuvres on Thursday, May 4, from 4:30 – 6:30 pm, where people can enjoy the new gathering space in the shop.
She is eager to see many members of the Wheeling community come out to see the updated décor and products, but Mary Beth is secretly hoping that a special someone is captivated and inspired by the spirit of this unique business enough to want to make it their own. “I have really started thinking – I won’t say how old I am, but – that I’d like this business to continue after me. It’s really important to Wheeling, because there’s nothing else like it. But I’m not going to be doing this for another ten years, so I would like to find someone local who would be interested in buying the business, I would like to mentor someone, and then work for that someone for a while, and keep it going. And this refresh makes it more possible, I think.” So, if you’re as curious as I was about all that lies within this small Fulton shop, and maybe recently took a career survey that leads you to believe you might be a good interior designer, don’t be a stranger!
Photos by Carl Adams and Wallis
This piece is paid content.