Life really is a puzzle for Libby Story McRight.
While the rest of us live each day giving little notice to the things around us, McRight can’t help but notice those very things. She looks at them thinking not so much about what they are but what they could be.
“Don’t throw that away — I know I can make something out of that,” she’ll say to those around her.
And she can. McRight’s talent for transforming fabric, vintage clothes, jewelry, drapes, furniture and the like into marketable items has gained notice throughout Mississippi and beyond. Not that she lacks a fondness for the trendy new stuff. Her skill, she says, is knowing what items to order from apparel makers, how to display them and how to fit them to the personality and individual style of the buyer.
Just into her mid-30s, McRight has a long and potentially prosperous future ahead of her in designing, branding and selling specialty merchandise. She has already made a significant mark in women’s apparel retailing in Mississippi with Libby Story stores previously in Greenville and now in Starkville, Ridgeland and Flowood. For that, she is the Mississippi Business Journal’s Business Person of the Year for 2012.
To track the origins of the 10,000-square-foot Libby Story store in Renaissance at Colony Park as well as her other stores, you must go back to what was once the Central Buick dealership in Indianola. That’s where a youngster witnessed her grandfather engage in the art of the deal. “I remember watching him and saying, ‘This is it!’”
Thusly inspired to sell things, McRight next had to decide what to sell.
Inspiration for that came from her grandmother’s closet. “I found out how to take the old stuff and make it into new stuff,” she says.
And years later, customers would marvel that what they thought they were buying new was actually quite old, or at least partly old.
“People didn’t realize they were buying vintage… until they got to the register and I told them,” she says, They mostly were “overwhelmed” with delight, she adds.
It all fit in with the McRight theory of marketing to women: Customers like wearing one-of-a-kind stuff.
She says she stands as proof of her theory. “I love wearing my grandmother’s clothes. It creates a story.
“In creating what I create, I want it to matter,” she said.
She, of course, has long since exhausted the creative possibilities of her grandmother’s closet. Nowadays she travels to thrift shops, flea markets and estate sales throughout the region in search of old things to make new again.
It all goes into an eclectic inventory that includes the newest fashions and McRight’s own creations. The idea is to make the right match for the right customer, McRight says.
At Libby Story, “the style we have is a little unique,” she explains. “I am constantly encouraging my girls to help our customers develop their own styles. So what you have on speaks to who you are.”
And few women feel a “canned outfit” reflects who they are, McRight says.
“It’s more like art work… It’s about composition and how things are lying. My husband looks at it and says, ‘You are so bizarre. It’s like you are painting with clothes.’”
You might find McRight wearing an all new outfit. But look again and you’ll see some vintage in the mix, she says. It may be jewelry. It may be heels. Or it may even be a hat. “I can’t not do that,” she says of resisting an urge to match the old with the new.
Promising she is not exaggerating, McRight adds: “Half the time the stuff I have on would blow your mind.”
Gail’s in Greenville
Growing up the oldest of four girls, McRight’s household didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on clothes, McRight recalls. But opportunities to be resourceful were plentiful, she says.
“I could take my dad’s stuff… take his shorts and make them into dresses.”
Even the household décor benefitted from her creations, with lampshades made from her father’s old ties among her specialties.
McRight’s introduction to women’s clothing came with her hiring at Gail’s, a popular downtown Greenville women’s apparel store. She remained there through high school and later transferred from Mississippi State to Delta State so she could manage the store and commute to Cleveland for school.
“While I was there I pulled it out of the red,” McRight says.
The owner nonetheless decided to close, but at McRight’s pleading agreed to sell to her. Much to the disappointment of McRight at the time, the owner’s family killed the sale before it could be completed.
“That ended up being a huge blessing,” McRight says. “I started fresh at a new location when she closed up.”
But what to call the new store?
“We went through a thousand different names,” she says. “I wanted my old customers to know it was my store so I named it Libby Story.”
The first Libby Story opened on Margaret Boulevard but later moved to 2118 Highway 1 South. In the meantime, McRight had opened her Starkville store and had her eye on opening in metro Jackson.
McRight sold the Greenville store in 2010 to her first cousin and store manager Renee Van Namen. Now named Suzi Paige, the former Libby Story store is flourishing despite the hard economic times Greenville has fallen on, according to Van Namen, a former school teacher whose introduction to retail came through working with McRight.
“I learned a lot from Libby about reading people and finding out their styles.”
Assessing McRight’s strengths, Van Namen cited her knowledge of how to please the customer, how to organize the store, how to put things together and how to make things flow.
“Her brain is constantly going,” she says of McRight. “She doesn’t stop.”
It’s been “a really good couple of years” for the Suzi Paige store, including the opening of a new location in Monticello, Ark., Van Namen says.
But unlike the Libby Story stores, Suzi Paige sticks to new merchandise.
Van Namen says she is happy to leave the vintage to McRight. “She’s got the knack for it. She can look at something and see its potential. I do not.”
Starkville and beyond
Success came quickly at the house McRight converted into a 2,400-square-foot shop on Starkville’s North Jackson Street — perhaps too quickly. The parking lot overflowed and keeping an adequate inventory became a challenge. In the meantime, competitors began popping up. “Our sales were slipping,” McRight says.
A move had to be made “but we weren’t going to just go in anywhere,” she says.
McRight and husband, John Hunter, settled on a 6,000-square-foot building at 306 University Drive. They did the build-out themselves.
That accomplished, they began looking for an expansion opportunity in metro Jackson. They opened in a 3,300-square-foot space on Jackson Street in Ridgeland. Not long after, McRight realized the shape of the space was all wrong. Limitations presented by the space configurations made it difficult for McRight to set up her trademark displays.
A year later, in fall 2011, McRight opened her current 10,000-square-foot store on the Fresh Market side of Ridgeland’s Renaissance. The store gives McRight ample room to set up walls displays of stitched sweaters, baskets, vintage wood and even hubcaps. Old doors are a favorite, many with full length mirrors for customers trying on jackets and hats.
An old tin shed occupies a portion of the center of the store. Step inside and you will find merchandise and chairs to relax in.
McRight calls her 2,000-square-foot space at 145 Market Street in Flowood a “pop-up” store, though her plan is to keep the location open through at least March. The store’s displays are constructed from cardboard. You will find much of the same apparel there as at the Renaissance store, but the market is distinct from Ridgeland’s, McRight says.
“Flowood is 20 minutes away from Ridgeland but it is a whole different world. You have to bring something special in an industry where a lot of people are trying to do the same thing.”
Regardless of the location, McRight says she applies the same marketing principle: “People like to spend money. You just have to be the place they think of when they go to spend it.”