There are people who can watch a movie or TV show and accurately recognize classic and vintage cars that appear on screen. It’s even said actor Tom Hanks can pick out and name old manual typewriters used in movies. Jeannie Petterson can do this with cowboy boots.
“It’s awful for me to watch a movie because I’m so distracted with the clothing,” said Petterson. “I’m looking for boots and I’ll miss the whole story line. It’s very distracting.”
Petterson’s obsession with cowboy boots comes naturally. Raised in a small farming community in southern Wisconsin, cowboy boots and western wear is what she grew up around.
“It’s what I’m comfortable with. I grew up on a horse farm. I love it.”
Petterson has a degree in interior design and decorative arts, and sought to incorporate her passion for vintage apparel and western wear into a business. She launched Uniquitiques about 20 years ago when she was still in Wisconsin, later moving south and locating her business in numerous malls and antique malls. She eventually settled into her current location in a small house on King Street in downtown Hillsborough.
“Initially, I was just in the front room,” Petterson said. “I shared the building with some other women. They moved to the other side of Churton. At that point, I decided to take over the entire house.”
Her decision to expand her business throughout the house was a difficult one. Up to then, Petterson’s business carried a small selection of boots. Her inventory was primarily vintage and shabby chic furniture. The Great Recession happened and furniture sales plummeted.
After some soul searching — or sole searching — Petterson took the plunge. “I decided it was time. I was terrified. It was more rent. More responsibility. But I decided if I wanted to be legit, I was going to go all in on boots.”
Being in Hillsborough in the South helped with her decision. “In the Midwest, where I’m from, you can’t wear cowboy boots all year around. But you can down here.
“There’s not just any one genre or any one age that’s wearing cowboy boots,” Petterson continued. “It’s one thing I love about them. It ranges from young kids to grandmas. We have festival goers that wear them. We have true farmers and rodeo workers, the people I grew up with. Boots are so comfortable if you get the right fit. They’re miserable if you get the wrong fit. But we’re big in making sure no one leaves here without the right fit.”
It’s not hard to imagine farmers and construction workers wearing cowboy boots, but doctors?
“In the last four or five years, I’ve been having doctors and surgeons come in from some of the big medical universities in North Carolina,” Petterson said, “and they’re buying boots and wearing them with their scrubs. They are that comfortable. And you know doctors are on their feet, and they have to be comfortable.”
Her biggest sellers vary with trends, with the current best-selling boot being a comfortable, medium-range traditional cowboy boot that is more like what Petterson calls a “snip-toe.”
A “snip-toe” cowboy boot is a bridge between the wide square-toe and the round-toe. It’s dressier than the wide square-toe, but still casual enough to be worn with jeans and a t-shirt. Most snip-toe boots come with a western heel as opposed to the flatter walking heel of the wide square-toe boots.
Petterson’s store has hundreds of boots from a minimum of 30 different bootmakers. She gets her boots — and other vintage wear — from wholesalers all over the country. She does not do consignment.
“I’ve been in the boot business a long time,” she said. “I know what is popular in one part of the country might not be popular in another.”
Petterson’s favorite cowboy boots are the vintage styles. “The stitching is fabulous,” she said. “By far, I prefer the vintage over the new. I consider myself a vintage dealer and not a new cowboy boot store by any means. There are new boots in here, but some of them you can’t even tell because they’re styled after the vintage boots that I like.”
The vintage cowboy boots are also the preferred style for one group of clientele she never expected to become so involved with: musicians.
“Musicians are all over vintage. They want that look. They don’t want a new boot when they’re on stage.”
THE ‘BOOT ROOM’
Uniquitiques has become a favorite stopping place for local and not-so-local musicians. While the store’s reputation for quality vintage western fashions continues to grow, it’s the ‘Boot Room’ that has become local lore. Hundreds of pairs of cowboy boots fill numerous shelves on each wall. A boot-filled circular display in the middle of the room makes for sucking-in-your-gut maneuvering, but no one seems to mind.
Local recording studio YepRoc Records shot a video in the Boot Room for the band Mandolin Orange.
“That video led to a lot more business locally and from up North,” Petterson said. “That was a big surprise for me, too. All of a sudden, I have people coming in just to see the ‘Boot Room.’
RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT OUTFIT
But Petterson’s big break came on a trip to Nashville for a Country Music Awards festival. She and a group of her friends were having lunch at a bar when several cast members of the the A&E show “Crazy Hearts Nashville” came in.
Petterson was star-struck, but understood it was a no-no to approach the celebrities in public. “You’re just not supposed to do that. So, I was trying not to. Really hard.”
But one of the cast members saw Petterson’s excitement. “He smiled at me and that was it. I decided I was going to talk with him.”
While the cast member — singer, Jimmy Stanley — talked with Petterson, another cast member — Lee Holyfield — approached the two and told Petterson how much she liked her outfit.
Petterson didn’t miss a beat. “Actually,” she said to Holyfield, “I own a boutique in Hillsborough.” Just like that, Petterson got her boot in the door.
“It was a chance encounter — right time, right place. Right outfit.”
Her Nashville moment led to contact with a lot of other musicians and stylists, who will contact Petterson to see if there’s a match in her shop for something they need. It could be a type of cowboy boots, or a western-style shirt.
“There’s often very little time, because it could be for a video or a photo shoot,” Petterson said. “I’ll send them pictures of whatever they’re looking for. That takes a lot of work. I have my own clients and it’s much easier. I know their size and styles.”
Petterson says she is unfazed by the celebrity attention — she said she’s getting ready to ship items to Nashville for a guy who is currently on the radio — but admits having a soft spot for musicians.
“I’ve been able to work with a lot more local musicians. The word’s out that I’m good to my musicians. I do a discount for them. I know how rough it is; they’re living their dreams. But sometimes it can be very, you know, lean. I enjoy the celebrity attention my business gets, but that’s not what I’m in it for. I meet these young musicians and I’m like the cool aunt.”
NOT JUST BOOTS
Outside of the vintage western wear and the Boot Room, Petterson fills her store with handmade items from local artists. Along with the leather smells that permeate her historic shop, there are candles, soaps, deodorants and other natural products.
“I’m working with the community, and I love that,” she said. “You can get an inexpensive gift here that is one of a kind and is from North Carolina.”
But at the end of the day, Petterson doesn’t mind being known for her selection of cowboy boots.
“Hillsborough has been the most wonderful and accepting place to be,” Petterson said. “Not everyone wants what I sell, but everyone has been wonderful. I couldn’t have stayed here this long or been successful without the support of this town. And I’ve had pretty much everyone in this town in here at one point or another, throughout the years.
“I’ve had a lot of people who paint come in and take pictures of boots so they can reproduce them. They are pieces of artwork like anything else.
“I wear boots just about every day,” she added. “I was so lucky to find a niche and to sell something I know so much about.”