Originally published in Business Digest, September 1998

Eastman Shows Her Style

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Peggy Eastman Peggy Eastman, the owner of Sport Style, an upscale women's clothing store at Lakewood Commons in South Burlington, puts personal taste above the latest fashion trend when selecting inventory. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

When Peggy Eastman talks about burnout, don't think for a second that she's talking about her state of mind. Burnout, for Eastman, refers to a velvet fabric that has designs burned in it. As for personal burnout, forget it. On fire she may be, but Eastman's flame generates energy and is well stoked by her enthusiasm for the clothes she sells at Sport Style, her South Burlington fashion shop in Lakewood Commons on Shelburne Road.

A native of Fayetteville, N.Y., Eastman describes herself as a "typical little cheerleader type who graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in fashion merchandising and marketing. I've always been a little clothes hog," she says, "even in high school, when I worked for some of the large department stores in Syracuse and, in summer, in a specialty women's store on the Cape." Selling came easily to her, a talent she inherited from her father, a manufacturer's rep for an office furniture company and "a born salesman."

It was at S.U. that she met Dick Eastman -- she calls him Eastie -- a Midwesterner, whom she married when he was in his senior year -- "a year behind me." Following his graduation, in 1970, they came to Okemo, where his parents had a ski house, "to be ski bums." That lasted one winter, Eastman chortles, "and it was a great way to start a marriage -- free rent, to boot!"

Following that first winter, Eastman landed a job managing the women's departments at the J.C. Penney store in Burlington, where she would work for six years, until the birth of her second child, Derick. "My two kids are just a year apart, so when I had Derick, Mandy was a year old, and I decided it was time to stay home and enjoy them."

Seven years later, in 1984, when her children were third- and fourth-graders, Eastman opened Sport Style at the then-new Jelly Mill Common in Shelburne. "I had always planned to have my own store, and when Clint Lewis opened the Jelly Mill, we were in the first wave of stores." That first year, Eastman had a partner. "It was a wonderful concept, but partnerships with best friends don't work," she adds ruefully, preferring not to name the partner. "You need to have totally different areas of expertise. I bought her out.

"The Jelly Mill didn't work for many people," Eastman says, "but it worked for me." Indeed, Sport Style thrived during its five years at the Jelly Mill, focusing on sporty attire, such as tennis and aerobic wear. A men's store, The Upper Deck, which she opened there, was also successful. She recalls, with amazement, juggling work and family in those early days. "I don't know how I did it."

One major thing the Jelly Mill years did for Eastman was enabled her and her husband the needed time to erect the building that is the store's current home -- something she says they planned all along. Dick was a developer at heart, who had founded and sold Reilly Tire Co. in South Burlington. The building at Lakewood Commons was just one of many projects, including Watertower Hill in Colchester, that he's developed over the years. "I wanted to be closer to Burlington, and this gave me that opportunity," says Eastman.

Sport Style's opening in Lakewood Commons in 1989 was great for the business, providing an accessible location with lots of parking and good visibility from the street. Although she wasn't able to put a sign out on Shelburne Road, Eastman installed a large neon sign in the window. "I hesitated on the neon, but you had to do something," she says. She also briefly considered changing the name. "'Sports Style' makes tourists think I'm selling skis -- they don't think we're a fashion store," she moans. "But our business is 95 percent local people, so tourists really don't make a big difference. I'm lucky to have a large customer base. And after so many years in business, it's hard to change your name." If you're looking for the phone number, however, note that the phone book lists it as one word: Sportstyle, which is not really an error, says Eastman, who sheepishly admits that she spells it both ways and has no preference.

One change that followed the move was the demise of The Upper Deck. "When I moved here, I put it upstairs," says Eastman, "and the concept of a men's store over a women's store just didn't work." The new building, however, does exactly what Eastman had hoped. "It's a very attractive building that lends itself to better goods," she says, hastening to add that, while the shop carries a lot of high-end merchandise, there are moderately priced things as well.

Eastman prides herself in not (necessarily) following fashion trends, but instead following the dictates of her own taste. "I buy with myself in mind -- it's totally personal," she admits. "I like brighter clothes, colorful things. And I'm a 'sweaterholic.' That and bathing suits are two things I've always loved." This has been her guiding influence since founding Sport Style. And while the product mix has evolved -- for example, she no longer sells tennis wear -- Eastman's casual flair is at the root of her success. "I don't spend a lot of time reading fashion magazines," she confesses, "but I am in the city (New York) every month, so I learn a lot from just exposure. I love to travel. It's expensive to go so often, but I can move on trends quicker. Still, I buy way out -- I'm buying for spring now." Whenever she encounters Burlington shop-owner Nan Patrick on a plane, they laugh at each other. "She's buying for next week, and I'm buying three months away," Eastman says.

While casual is the overriding theme of the shop, in recent years, suits and dresses have begun to take up more floor space. "We went through such a man-tailored, unisex period, that I think women want to be feminine now. that's really driven the dress market." Nowadays, the more casual clothes such as bathing suits, jeans, khakis and turtlenecks -- what Eastman calls "weekend wear" -- are on the upper level, while the first floor is oriented toward the sweaters, suits and dressier dresses.

Eastman's buying strategy -- which she describes as "onesies" -- means that she only carries one of any particular design in a size, and she tracks them, so customers can be pretty confident of having the only one of what they buy. This has been well received by her largely local clientele. "You don't want to see yourself out there," she says. This philosophy may, however, create problems when it comes to marketing on the World Wide Web, something Eastman is considering.

She credits a flood five years ago for giving her the opportunity to try lots of new things. "It got down to 30 below that night, and the sprinklers froze and went off," she says. "It was a wonderful flood! I got to redecorate. The walls even came down in some places. We had to redo the store, and we were closed for two months."

University of Vermont students who had done a test study of the shop for a marketing class had suggested that Eastman computerize. "That was the bug that got me going," she says, "and besides, my son was constantly bothering me about it." Now, Rebecca Smith, the store manager, who's been with Eastman for nine years, and Eastman's assistant, Alicia Apgar, do all of the computer work.

There are 10 employees in all. "We don't have a big turnover," Eastman says. "I've got such a good crew. It's definitely a joint effort. Everybody likes people. That's what I look for in hiring. The main thing in the store is customer service, and that's what I try to instill in everybody. There's no reason to come to a small store unless you can get personalized help. So everyone really cares about our customers. People will take things home and sew them if our seamstress is busy. And we'll deliver things. I've been to Middlebury several times on deliveries."

Lynda Waltien, longtime customer and friend for 25 years, confirms without prompting that Eastman practices what she preaches. "I think her biggest strength as far as her job is that she genuinely is interested in people and she remembers what they like. She just has that enthusiasm and cares about the customers. She sees the world in a really positive way."

To illustrate the family atmosphere she tries to nurture among staff and customers, Eastman tells about the time Smith had her baby. "He was here for the first six months. I remember how I hated going back to work when my daughter was born. But as casual as the store is, we kept Rebecca's baby in the office, and when he got bigger, he was downstairs in a swing or playpen." There are always toys in the store so customers feel comfortable about bringing their children with them.

This personal, casual approach has served Eastman well over the years. "The town is over-retailed, for sure," she says, "but we've never had a year that we haven't had an increase. Some years, it's been anywhere from 3 to 5 percent. Last year, we were up 10 percent, and this year's been very good so far." The store seems to evolve as styles and fabrics do, and Eastman is enthusiastic about textile innovations. "Right now, a lot of those '50s and '60s looks are back, especially for younger people. But the fabrics are easier. Where, 15 years ago, you saved velvet for special occasions, now you don't have to worry about spilling anything on it, because it's washable. And back when I was studying textiles for four years at S.U., they didn't have tencel. It's a new natural fiber made from the bark of a tree, usually mixed with cotton, although I've seen it with rayon and silk. It has a wonderful hand and is great for pants."

Still, probably the most fun for Eastman is the sweaters, and she almost gushes when she talks about them. "I carry dia, local sweaters from Middlebury, in chenilles and cotton. They're very expensive, but they're real works of art, exquisite. They're my top of the line, but they're so worthwhile. And it's not like you just come in and buy three dias. They're wonderful Christmas presents for men. Because anyone who knows them knows they're a specialty present." She launches into stories about Christmas shoppers, such as one customer who always brings a bottle of champagne with him. "He says, 'I might as well enjoy myself.'"

Betsy Taff, owner of Shelburne Country Store and another longtime friend and customer, confesses the man Eastman is referring to is her husband, Doug, who shops at Sport Style every Christmas. "He draws a crowd -- has a wonderful time. He once took his female staff members in, when he owned his own company -- gave the guys bonuses and took the ladies in and bought each one an outfit. They had a ball. And I always buy my staff presents there. It's just a great place to shop."

Eastman clearly loves what she's doing and expects to carry on for at least another 10 years in the same location. She doesn't plan any expansions or moves in the foreseeable future. "I tried a pro shop at Twin Oaks one year, but I don't foresee anything like that again. If I do anything, I'd think of a resort store, maybe in Grand Cayman, so I'd have someplace to vacation." And retiring isn't currently an option she's considering. "After just getting these kids through college, it certainly has never been an option. Plus, I like working. I get bored. You can only go to Twin Oaks for tennis so often."

Tennis, however, isn't her only recreation. She still skis and is a self-described "fanatic gardener. I live down on the lake on Thompson's Point. I'm lucky to have a spot where I have a lot of land for the gardens, because that's really my true love." She does English cottage-style plantings, "because they hold each other up. One garden I call the Therapy Garden. When my daughter went off to boarding school, I was so upset, it was a great excuse. I'm just starting a knot garden. I have another herb garden I started a couple of years ago. I'm forever starting new gardens, much to my husband's dismay."

It's evident, though, that the store continues to provide the lion's share of Eastman's pleasure. "I want it to reflect me," she says. "I think when I no longer want to do the buying, I'll sell or close. I like it fun -- don't ever want to be serious."