A.J. Silva is a passionate, high-energy retail veteran who recently returned to Concord with a new store on Main Street, Arnaldo Joseph Boutique. He sat down with John Mattes to discuss the past, present and future of his business and why Concord is such a perfect fit.
JM: So here we are on Main Street. But you were here on Main Street before.
AJS: Six almost seven years ago. I’ve always loved Concord, and I’ve always loved the retail business. And one day [almost 10 years ago] I was in a candy shop on Warren Street having an ice cream and I saw that there was a little shop that was vacant. And I knew I wanted to get back into it, so I opened up there. And then eventually a spot opened up on Main Street. So I opened there, a bridal shop named Bravo, and I was there for a year and a half.
JM: What is it about Concord that keeps you coming back?
AJS: Concord is like the little city with a big city feel to it. And no matter where you go women want to be stylish and find wonderful, different things that are beautiful but affordable, and that’s what I try to bring into the city. And I have an amazing client base. So I just had to come back.
My thing is I love to have a customer come in – this just happened the other day – mother and daughter came in looking for a dress for a wedding, for the mother. I just gave her one dress. She put it on. Bought it. Couldn’t believe it. And then the daughter says, “If you can do that for my mom, do it for me.” So I gave her one dress. She put it on and she bought it. I just love making people feel beautiful. And if I don’t like it, I don’t sell it.
JM: That’s so smart.
AJS: And I tell all my employees that, too, because that person is going to go out and represent us. And we want everybody to ask them, “Where did you get that?” And there has to be positive feedback. Sales are not worth making if they’re not perfect.
JM: I don’t see any bridal gowns here.
AJS: No, I used to do bridal. I did bridal for 27 years. And I had my own label. And that’s a business in itself. So now I do this . . . And someone comes in, they see something and they take it home with them. It’s just so much easier!
I have another store in Bedford at the Bedford Village Inn . . . And that was after I had opened this store in its former location last February. We opened the Bedford store in October, and that took off like crazy . . . It’s an amazing spot! So that runs itself, and I have four ladies who run that. And [the Concord Main Street store] comes about in January. So here we are!
JM: What’s your way of describing the couture, your style?
AJS: It’s almost, how do I say it, conservative with a flair. I try to bring things into the city that you’re not going to see everywhere else. All the pieces make a statement, but in a simple way. That’s a good way to put it, I think. I try to pick beautiful fabrics, beautiful styles. It’s definitely not for the shy, let’s put it that way.
People come in and they look at our prices and they just can’t believe what we have. Because it looks a lot more expensive from the outside. But when you come in people are pleasantly surprised. My stores have always looked special. When you walk in, you’re visually . . . all your senses are awakened. I usually have a candle going, your visual senses get heightened. . . . I don’t want to have just a basic looking store. Like this dressing room area. I didn’t want to just have a carpenter come in, put up some wallpaper there and throw down a little rug. Visually, I wanted to make it look special, emotionally I want to make my customers feel special.
JM: I noticed you have a good bit of jewelry here, too. What percentage of your business is accessories?
AJS: I try to bring in accessories that are from casual to very dressy. Again, with jewelry, you can come in and buy a pair of leather earrings for $18, or a necklace set for $200. Here, we have Sterling silver with cubic zirconia, but the workmanship. I buy the best that I can, so that some of these earrings look like heirlooms, but they’re not. There’s something for everyone, whether you want to come in and buy a simple pair of jeans or the perfect little black dress. There used to be a store named Cache, and that informs me a lot. You used to be able to buy a beach coverup or an evening gown. So I go from one extreme to another.
So you can say, “when you’re at Renaldo’s you can go from the beach to the ballroom.” I just made that up; I like that.
JM: Is this something that you’re going to do for the rest of your life?
AJS: For the rest of my life. I know it is. Especially with having the Bedford store. It’s such an amazing location. And wanting to be here on Main Street. This has always been my goal. I might consider opening a third store? I’d consider going toward the coast, maybe Exeter, but that would be at least a year down the road. Retail is what I love to do. I love every aspect from the customer, to the shopping trips, to again, just making people feel great.
JM: You were just in New York City this week . . .
AJS: Yeah, I go every two weeks or so. I’ll sometimes just go in to look at windows. And I love that. I’ll walk on Seventh Avenue, up and down, 70 blocks and I won’t care, just to rejuvenate yourself.
But Concord is wonderful to come home to, there’s an energy to it, and it’s actually changed quite a bit since I was here last.
JM: That’s interesting. How has it changed?
AJS: Well, I just think the rejuvenation of Main Street. I had left just prior to it starting. So now you come in and it just feels different. I don’t know what it is, but it feels completely different to when I was here last. And although it’s been cold and winter, I think by springtime it’s going to change. And the traffic especially on Main Street will be changing, I’m hoping anyway.
There’s a certain sophistication here. And maybe it’s because the State Capital building is two streets down. It impresses me in a way. And as I said, I wanted to open up a shop here, and I did, and I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. This is my main focus, it’s Main Street now. Bedford takes care of itself. So now it’s just to concentrate here.
JM: What is the newest line that you’ve put in that you’re excited about?
AJS: This is a line called Aratta, these print shirts, these simple little dresses. You walk in a room, people are going to notice you in this dress. It’s different, but there’s nothing gawdy about it.
We also have a line, Cactus, that’s casual wear, linens, a little summery little slip dress that you could wear to the grocery store, and then they have beautiful linen pants and tops that you could put on and go to dinner in on a hot summer night. And their prices are extraordinary for linens. Again, from beach to ballroom.
JM: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about the store?
AJS: Yes. When someone comes in, whether they’re a size 2 or a size 22, we try to carry things for all sizes, which I think is very, very important. Some stores have a very small selection. And if we don’t have it we can make a special order. Especially for that woman who’s full-figured, it’s important for her to find something that’s stylish.
– 30 –
JM: A little lightning round now, and I want you to consider your whole career, not just this store.
What’s the most expensive dress you’ve sold?
AJS: I had a bride and I custom-made her gown. It was $9,500 and she wanted it to be an exact copy of Grace Kelly’s wedding gown but in gold. Gold chantilly lace, French lace. Spectacular. This is going back 15 or 17 years ago when I had a big bridal store in Massachusetts.
JM: What’s the most exotic?
AJS: I’ve done gowns for Miss USA, then I dressed Miss USA for Miss Universe. I dressed the national costumes for the pageants. I love being creative.
Quick story. This beautiful women comes in. She says, “I hear you make custom gowns.” She was running for something small like Miss Chelmsford. Her name was Shawnea Jebbia. So I made her her dress, and she won her local. Now she’s going to the state. She said, “AJ make me whatever you want for the state.” So I made her her state dress and she won Miss Massachusetts. So then, she came to me, and said, “AJ, I’m going to go for Miss USA. Make me whatever you think.” John, she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life. I would tell her, Shawnee, you look so pretty today, and she would turn completely red. She had no idea how beautiful she was. “We’re going to make you a strapless fitted, silk chiffon dress, champagne colored.” And remember no one wore this at a pageant but I wanted her to be neutral and understated. “And then we’re going to crystallize the shoulders and make you a necklace, and we’re going to make you a long shawl that’s gonna drag when you walk and then it’s gonna flow.” And she said, “But AJ no one’s gonna wear that at a pageant.” And I said, “Shawnee, you are!” So I made her the gown. She came in, tried it on. I went zip [up the back] and she started crying, she loved it so much. . . So then at Miss USA, out of all the states we got highest scored evening gown, we got 9.5-something, and then she won Miss USA 1998!
I was on my coach at home, and it was the highest scored evening gown. I’m competing against designers all over the world. Now, I’m literally on top of my couch jumping up and down. What a moment!