Photo by Sarah Marcella of The Scout Guide Alexandria
Story by Liesel Schmidt Photography by Jeff Heeney When Boxwood’s owners Joanna Szczerban and Leah Donahue first met in January of 2019, they had no idea they were about to embark on a two-year journey to build one of Old Town’s favorite gift shopping destinations.
At the time, Szczerban ran a store called Royal Street Barn, while Donahue was enrolled at Marymount for a degree in interior design. Donahue visited the shop in search of a desk for a client when they started to talk about the future of the retail space at 128 South Royal, an old historic building that started as a bank. It has been zoned for retail for many years and was home to a wide range of stores.
"It was clear from the start that we both had a similar vision for what the shop could become - how it could evolve into something that Old Town really needed."
The pair built the Boxwood brand to appeal to a range of ages as well as introduce a new sense of color into the market.
“Everyone was just coming off the peak popularity of HGTV’s Fixer Upper and the modern farmhouse look. We knew there was a real gap for a store that understood how to bring color into people’s homes because we believe that homes should be as vibrant and colorful as the people who live in them,” said Donahue.
When they opened Boxwood in April of 2019, it was on a shoestring budget. They joke that their first buying trip really cemented the business partnership, given that they could only afford one hotel room. The vast majority of their capital went to inventory instead of building out the space. Then they slowly started to invest back into the store to make the improvements they wanted such as extra workshop space, custom bookshelves, lighting, wallpaper, and fresh paint.
Some of the early product offerings that Szczerban and Donahue agreed upon are still some of their best sellers. Their vinyl floor mats are one example. Many of the historic homes around Old Town have entryways with heavy, low-hanging front doors. Boxwood offers a line of Italian vinyl floor mats that are thin enough to clear those doors - but more importantly, the Italian designs are stunning.
“Our line of vinyl floor mats and placemats have quickly become a staple for people’s homes. We are constantly placing custom orders for larger sizes or different patterns. And while it takes some time to come from Italy, it’s always a favorite delivery,” said Szczerban.
“We also both fell in love with blankets from in2green - a brand we have carried since day one. They are sustainably made from recycled water bottles or scraps of fabric and offer a modern splash of color for any home,” added Donahue.
In early 2020, Boxwood was one of the many local businesses that was able to survive through the shutdown with loyal customers, a generous landlord, and products people wanted. The owners attribute much of their success to being the exclusive source in Northern Virginia for Annie Sloan® Chalk Paint® - the original manufacturer of paint that can transform old furniture without priming or sanding. The more than 30 color options provide an easy way to revive furniture, and Boxwood offers workshops to help beginners.
“It’s no surprise that people suddenly had time for those DIY home projects,” said Szczerban. “There were days where we drove all over the city to deliver paint and brushes to front doors.”
Today, they marvel at how many customers come to Boxwood for a very particular gift. Customers work with each of their three employees, Cindy Kolbe, Gayle Palmer, and Nancy Soyka, to find just the right gift at the right price.
“We’ve found that there’s a palpable desire to shop local for gifts, when Amazon or Target can’t fit the bill. Even more so for those more complex gift scenarios like a party hostess who has everything, a vacation homeowner who lets your family crash for a week, the teacher who has too many coffee mugs, the mother-in-law who is a quintessential mother-in-law,” said Donahue.
This coming year, when they’re not in Boxwood, Szczerban and Donahue look forward to returning in person to the gift markets around the country in cities like Dallas, New York, and Atlanta. They note that they always want to touch and feel a product before they introduce it to customers. They know that Alexandria shoppers expect quality that's harder to find online, though they are also working on revamping their own website for easy shopping options.
From gorgeous pottery to the best smelling candles; from Caspari and Vietri napkins to Tulusa linens by local Alexandrian Sue Henry, Boxwood continues to offer lovely items in a wide range of vibrant colors to fit any home.