Three French Hens celebrates 14 years of business

Sally Spooner, owner of Three French Hens in Woodstock, holds up a chandelier in one of her rooms of retail goods on Main Street. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – The gift shop at 143 Main St. more closely resembles the residential home it was adapted from rather than a traditional business. The front door opens to a staircase leading up to private quarters, with a bedroom-turned-merchandise display room on the left and the rest of the store to the right.

Sally Spooner, 71, the shop’s owner, sells pillows, faded jeans, clocks, knick-knacks, chandeliers, a mantle, beds, a portrait of Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire, stained glass, locally made greeting cards and anything else that piques her fancy.

But the biggest seller, Spooner said, is the signs.

The walls of the house-turned-store are spotted with signs bearing cutesy sayings like, “What happens with the girls stays with the girls” and, “Any woman can have the body of a 21 year old as long as she buys him a few drinks first.”

“It’s whimsy, you know what I mean?” Spooner said. “A little wit, a little fun, a little wink-your-eye. People like that.”

A sign: “Wine improves with age — the older I get the better I like it.”

Spooner started selling her knick-knacks as a pop-up vendor in 1996. Along with several other women, she would set up antique booths in the back of what’s now the Woodstock Café (back then it was a Daily Grind and an antique shop called Honeycutt & Sugarbaker).

In 2003, the vendors all wanted to go big for Christmas, but didn’t have enough floor space for all their wares. Fortunately, Spooner and her husband had recently bought a property on Main Street as an investment.

“Well why don’t we just open for Christmas, just in this building?” Spooner had said.

Two other women liked the idea, and on Black Friday 2003, the three of them opened a temporary, seasonal gift shop called “Three French Hens” in homage to the Christmas song, and as a nod to the number of founders.

Business took off, and, 14 years later, Three French Hens is still open in Woodstock six days a week. Spooner is the only remaining French hen out of the original three.

A sign: “Friends are like rainbows, always there to cheer you up after a storm.”

Over 14 years, Three French Hens has built up a loyal customer base. In particular, two customers, one who lives in Pennsylvania and one who lives in Roanoke, have regular meet-ups where they stop at Three French Hens as their halfway point.

“I have people that constantly tell me, ‘I’m on my biannual trip to Woodstock, so we never miss you.’ Or, ‘I’m visiting my grandmother,” Spooner said. “And this floors me, it makes me very pleased — people that have guests for holidays always bring them in here. Where else is there to go?”

Spooner routinely has customers tell her they come into the shop for an “attitude adjustment.” The colors of the shop, the vibe of the antiques and the ubiquitous signs make them “happy-fied,” as Spooner puts it.

“I feel like a bartender here half the time. People tell me their life story. I mean, people will tell me things I don’t need to hear,” Spooner said. “I know what medical problems they have, and I don’t even know these people. Not people I know, and they’ll tell me about their husband, or their child, or their job.”

A sign: “Today is a good day for a good day.”

Most weeks Spooner offers thematic special discounts in the store. One week it may be 20 percent off anything red and white, another week it could be anything that contains glass. This week it’s Christmas items. Next week it may be champagne flutes, for New Year’s Eve.

Spooner regularly reshuffles the arrangement of merchandise in the store to keep things fresh.

“It’s not just all thrown around, it’s curated,” she said. “If it’s in the store in one area and you move it in with a different look — maybe it was over there with pink, and then you move it in here with black — you get a different idea of what you can do with something in your home.”

Spooner credits her business’ success to her unique array of items, fresh merchandise arrangements, customer service and the regular specials.

A sign: “Do what you love, and do it often.”

It’s not always easy operating a gift shop in a small town. If she had started the shop near her old home in Arlington, Spooner said, she’d be rich by now.

“In a small town it’s hard to keep it going … if you’re in business, you have to rely on the native population when there’s no tourism,” Spooner said. “And the native population in Arlington is a lot bigger than a native population in a small town like Woodstock. People from Winchester in Harrisonburg, in snow, they’re not just going to come out and shop.”

After the financial crisis of 2008, Spooner noticed people in the town started to pinch their pennies and make more goods at home. Just recently, she’s noticed sales start to trend back upwards.

Spooner said she’s fortunate not be dependent on the shop for her livelihood. If she had to live solely off of the shop’s profits, she said, she would have to take out a part-time job. This lack of full dependency on the business helped her better weather hard economic times.

She had one nugget of advice to share with other businesses trying to hit that 14-year mark, and beyond.

“Find out what your customers want and need … roll with the punches,” she said. “Whether it’s the downturn in your economy, or your community — roll with the punches.”