“Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme et volupté”
- Charles Baudelaire, nineteenth century French poet
“There, all is just order and beauty, luxury, peace, and sensual delight.”
There are some retail boutiques that are so inviting; so fetching and intoxicatingly beautiful that husbands everywhere absolutely shudder to know that their wives are even aware of the shop’s existence. Like a Siren’s song these rare boutiques carry a consumer appeal that is so enticing, purchasing is nearly impossible to resist, and I should know. Nestled in the heart of Rice Village is one such place; a place where romantic glamour and elegance meets relaxed comfort and impeccable style; a place where anyone who has ever savored the essence of French living can bring a touch of Provence into their own home.
After spending five years in Uptown Park, Olivine has found a more suitable home at 2405 Rice Boulevard. For those of us who like to have all of our favorite places at arm’s length and thus suffer from what I affectionately refer to as “inner loop syndrome,” this new locale will give you yet another reason to make your way over to the eclectic shopping district also known as the Village Arcade. Conveniently situated next door to Salento - where one can grab a delicious cup of Joe before entering the French-inspired living boutique – Olivine offers everything from one-of-a-kind oil paintings to unique industrial lighting; linens to flatware; a cashmere bathrobe to fragrance, furniture, antiques and even children’s layette.
“The great thing about this store is that it’s practical. We carry high-end stuff too but the price points are all so different,” says store manager Cathy Stevens. Indeed, some of the more luxe brands Olivine carries include bedding from Bella Notte and Pom Pom at Home. But if thread count isn’t something you are in the market for, perhaps brands such as Le Cadeaux, Baby Cie, Kai Perfume, Lollia, Kiss that Frog, Vagabond Vintage, Pixie Lily, Les Indiennes, Cotton White, Dash and Albert, and even Aidan Gray might pique your interest. “We really try to make this a cozy, comfortable, homelike environment. Everything we sell is washable and lends itself to easy carefree living. Life’s too short to live in a home where you have to worry about what your pets and children will break or ruin,” says Stevens. “Absolutely,” echoes boutique owner, Helen Stroud. “We are very opinionated and vocal about our products and we care about the environment too. We sell practical things that people can use forever and none of our fabrics are made with toxins or require dry cleaning.” The word “olivine” even means a greenish mineral.
For me, the first time I walked into Olivine, it was like coming home. I smiled, closed my eyes and sighed oh-so deeply. I had found my happy place. This reaction is exactly what Stroud hoped to achieve when she opened her exquisite store nine years ago. “I wanted a place that was a little old fashioned; a place where we recognized customers. Music; scents. Come in, talk and enjoy. People even come in for free therapy sessions with Cathy,” says Stroud, with a roar. “We’re like a local bar but without the alcohol. We wanted this to be a place where people could walk through the door and even if they didn’t make a purchase, they could have an experience.”
A moment within the store is all it takes to recognize that Olivine is indeed a unique shopping experience. Customers walking in are typically greeted by Stroud’s enormous red dog, Pippi. The part Chow Chow, part Golden Retriever has become a store staple as has Olivine’s reputation for personal attention and service. When not tended to by Stroud herself, who charms with her Louisiana Steel Magnolias-esque southern drawl, you can be sure to catch manager Cathy Stevens delighting people with her lovely Australian accent. The women at Olivine are as diverse and eclectic as the store itself. Spend ten minutes gawking at Stevens’ amazing aptitude for store display or admire original artwork byStroud’s daughter Catherine. “She spent three years living in France,” she says proudly. “She’s incredibly talented.”
And don’t expect to hear the stereotypical sounds of Edith Piaf or Charles Trenet playing at Olivine either. Even the store’s atmosphere music breaks the cookie cutter mold of most French-inspired boutiques. “We do play French music but it’s funky French; unheard of bands,” says Stroud, whose artistic children help inspire her vast musical selection. “We like a broad mix that includes Carla Bruni and lots of alternative music. My kids are always telling me about new music and people love it. They always ask whose playing.” She’s right. The Decemberists are playing at the moment and it’s a total jam.
As our conversation moved past the interview and into spouses, health, potty training, the benefits of organic eating, and even European lifestyle, it became more and more evident that Stroud and Stevens are real women who put their money where their mouth is. Stroud for one is not only mother to five children but also raises eight dogs, though two recently passed of old age, two cats and three cockatiels. “I actually started this business because I needed a way to make my own money just to cover my pets’ vet bills,” she says with a laugh; an infectious laugh that makes you instantly feel like you’ve been friends with her your entire life. Indeed, after more than two hours of laughing and conversing with Stroud and Stevens, I allowed them to continue unpacking their newest shipment of inventory and made the inevitable purchase (twelve melamine glasses from Le Cadeaux) on my way out the door. I waved and assured them I’d be back soon. Very soon.