Thirty years ago, when Rene Sculatti first opened Amelia Claire, a shoe and dress shop at 1230 Main St., she said there was no fashion shopping in downtown St. Helena.
“I’m a Southern California girl, so when I came here, I nearly died,” she said last week. “I was used to having shopping here and there, the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre, lots of places to go and see and do.”
She remembers clothing choices in the downtown were limited to two men’s clothing stores, Mel’s and Goodman’s, both now gone, as well as catalogue outlets for Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Wards, long since closed. She also remembers Nu-Way Drugs – “where we would go to get ice cream” – and the St. Helena Hotel. “If there was any shopping, it was at Vintage 1870 in Yountville, she said.
Sculatti first worked for John Caldwell, who opened a shoe store at Vintage 1870 in Yountville, and took it over when he left.
“I just found my little niche, my passion, doing retail,” she said.
Ron and Rene Sculatti opened Mario’s Napa Valley at 1223 Main St. -- named after their son, Mario Sculatti -- in 1981; and opened Amelia Claire, after their daughter, in 1989 when Amelia was 30 months old.
On Friday, May 31, Rene Sculatti will celebrate the store’s 30th anniversary from 2 to 7 p.m. with a drawing for a $1,000 shopping spree. Sculatti said anyone who signs up will get a ticket; those who make a purchase will get two tickets.
In her 30 years in business, Sculatti has had some wonderful long-term employees, including her first employee, who was with her for 17 years, and her current manager, Lupita, who has been with her for the past five years.
Sculatti said she’s been a member of the Chamber of Commerce since 1989 and won a Civic Improvement award for converting Main Street Electric into her tasteful shop.
“They had lamps so old, they’re almost cool again,” Sculatti said with a laugh.
‘Those days were great’
She pulls out a magazine section from the San Francisco Examiner printed in 1996 that featured places to shop in the Napa Valley, including Amelia Claire.
“Those days were great, it was so easy,” she said. “You couldn’t even keep them (customers) away. I was shoes, hats and bags here and my women’s clothing store was next door. I closed that in 2015 and consolidated the two stores” because so many customers told Sculatti she had to have clothes, so she did, keeping a few things.
When asked what’s going on in St. Helena’s downtown today, Sculatti said she “didn’t feel the hit in 2005 or 2006, when everybody else did,” but only starting seeing the downturn in business in 2012.
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“The Internet, of course, has been difficult for most people, but I also think it has to do with the next generation. Our children’s generation shops online for everything. Their lives are so busy,” Sculatti said.
Amelia Claire Sculatti is now 34 and for the past decade she has worked for an online shoe company that wanted to move from sneakers and sandals to fashion footwear. Rene Sculatti said the online world has a different relationship to their customers than does brick-and-mortar stores.
“Theirs is a relationship built on buy a bunch and return a bunch, with no questions asked,” she said, “which, of course, is delightful in a lot of ways when people don’t like to shop.”
Sculatti adds, “We’ve never made it hard for our customers to shop here,” offering exchanges, services like stretching or dying a shoe, and alterations.
The store is also open late and Sculatti said, “People pour into my store from 5:30 until about 8, because they just got done wine tasting and there’s no one open.”
The shop owner has been in the retail business for 45 years and said she still loves it.
“I pray that this pendulum will swing back, even though my daughter will sometimes tell me that it’s over, that there’s no longer going to be small businesses as you know it,” she said. Sculatti adds, though, that she doesn’t believe her daughter because wherever she travels, she likes to shop.
When asked what St. Helena can do to attract more downtown businesses and/or keep the ones that are here, Sculatti was firm.
“I think a lot of the building owners don’t live in the real world and they don’t have their fingerprint on what it is like to be in business,” she said.
Landlords are raising rents and “thinking they could rent to anybody and ask whatever they wanted,” she said. “It’s hard work to stay in business and you gotta love it.” She said retail is her passion, although she added, “It takes a cooperation between the landlord and the tenants to make things really work and I don’t think there’s enough of that.”
Additionally, she cited a number of issues that hurt downtown businesses, including a lack of parking, a lack of lodging, the impact of the wildfires in 2017 – “October is my second best month,” Sculatti said, but not that year, when her business was down 40 percent – and the timing of the twice-a-year sidewalk sales. “In May, you’re wanting to sell your winter things, although people see all your brand new summer things and they want them at a bargain, and in October, you have all your brand new boots in and people don’t want to buy sandals,” she said.
What would Sculatti like to tell her customers? “I am so grateful that they’ve made it so fun. I’m thinking that I’m 66 years old – my party is one day after my birthday – and OK, these are my golden years. I love you guys, let’s just keep doing this for a few more years.”