At Happily Ever After Children’s Boutique, a children’s clothing resale store on Madison’s west side, “our mission really, in addition to selling clothes, is to hire and train young people, teens, and young adults who have developmental disabilities, particularly young teens who are in foster care, and young adults who have developmental disabilities to come in and train them in our workplace,” said Marilyn Harper, the store’s founder and owner.
“I had been a foster parent for a number of years and a lot of the youth that I work with have some behavioral concerns and challenges, and they really found it very difficult to get a job or to maintain a job, and I just happened to be passing by. This strip mall and I saw a big sign that said ‘For Lease,’ and it was just like an aha moment.”
Harper said she called the landlord and the two started brainstorming.
“I have no retail experience but I really like children’s clothing and I like nice clothes and I thought, well this would just be an excellent opportunity to open a small store, a children’s resale store. At the time there wasn’t one on the west side of Madison, and this would be kind of a training ground for foster youth [and youth with developmental disabilities] to come and kind of get some job skills,” she said. “I just felt that this would be an excellent opportunity for them to come work in a small boutique learn these skills, and then go on to bigger and better things.”
As a result of her stated mission, Harper noted that she has had many customers come in who intentionally patronize her business because “they like my mission” as well as white families with adopted Black children who wish to expose their children to the reality that there are Black-owned businesses in Madison.
“So that’s nice and affirming that people will bring their children in and be very intentional about seeking out a store just so that the children are exposed and they can see that there are Black-owned businesses in town,” Harper explained.
However, despite the traffic that her mission and staff garner, Harper added that she is very intentional about making sure she is not putting her staff on display in a manner that is “performative” or promotes tokenization.
“So people don’t really know who has a disability, who’s this, who’s the foster child, or whatever. And that’s the way we like it,” Harper added.
Not everyone was as encouraging about her business as Harper’s current customers are. In fact, Harper noted that many people, including Black people, did not have faith in Happily Ever After at its inception.
“I talked to some of my friends and they were very negative about me doing this,” she said. “They just felt like the Madison public just simply were not going to shop and buy clothes from a Black woman, particularly used clothes, and they were just like, ‘it’s just not going to happen,’” Harper said. “I have had very little support from the Black community in Madison.”
Regardless, Harper persevered, working hard to establish and build connections with her customers that extend much further than the typical seller-customer relationship.
“Because I’m an educator, everybody who’s worked in my store, are educators…and so, not only are we just selling clothes, we’re talking to parents about best practices and parenting and education and things like that so parents will just come through and we chat and we’re watching the kids grow up,” Harper said. “So we feel that we’re not just selling clothes, we’re developing relationships. Relationships with families too. So they come in, we chat, they show us pictures of the grandkids and things like that. So it’s not just the shop where we’re just doing a sale and people just move on. We know our customers.”
It was these relationships that allowed Happily Ever After to remain afloat during the pandemic; Harper was able to pivot her business model to include homemade childrens’ masks and found new and safe ways for customers to patronize the store.
“[Our customers] were all so instrumental in helping me survive during this lockdown,” she said. “Not only did they send in hundreds of orders, literally, they started Paypaling me and sending me money and even though my store was closed, we would go in and they would tell me sizes and things that they wanted. I also did that for people in Madison, because even though people could not come in, or people were afraid to come into stores, their children were still growing. And so I was shipping things or people would pay me PayPal, they would give me their address, and I was literally driving to the east side, dropping off the clothes that people were ordering. We were doing FaceTimes, I was holding clothes up, people were choosing their clothes, making their choices … So this is the level that we went to, and, and those people are still our customers today, and they supported us through COVID and this is how we managed and managed to survive and thrive.”
She even got some unsolicited donations.
“We had an older white gentleman, he’s like 70 years old, he came to the store and he was just like, ‘I don’t have any kids but I saw your store’ and he just handed us $100,” Harper continued. “He was just like, ‘it’s really important to me that you’re here in the community, that you’re locally owned, [and] I just want to support a Black-owned business.”
It is no secret to the Madison community that Harper is favored among the Madison people. Happily Ever After has won the Best of Madison Gold Award in the consignment store category twice — the only Black-owned retail business to have won two Best of Madison gold awards.
Due to her success, Haper has been able to help out her community in other ways, including providing interest-free loans to Black entrepenuers interested in starting a business or expanding their current business.
Happily Ever After Children’s Boutique is located at the Heritage Square Shopping Center, 708 S Whitney Way, Madison, WI 53711. More information about how to donate clothes to Happily Ever After Children’s Boutique can be found here, on their website.