by Jeremy Jones
What do a spunky Chestnut Hill shopkeeper and an erudite Greek philosopher have in common? They both speak the same language. Hillary O’Carroll interprets what Aristotle meant when he said, “The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized ends.”
O’Carroll conceived, owns and operates Isabella Sparrow at 8511 Germantown Ave. She has an earth-princess soul and other-worldly retail and design skills that are fertilizer for “nature’s unrealized ends” and reveal the inherent beauty of farmhouse finds, rural artifacts and gems of agricultural life, bringing their character into the modern world – to just be, or to serve a simple new function reflective of their original essence.
An indefinable energy greets you in the arms of Isabella Sparrow. Surrounded by O’Carroll’s joy of living what she loves, baskets overflowing with spring pussy willow, objects that evoke a spirit of connection, and the acoustic sonority of her personal Pandora soundtrack, even an old metal chicken feeder calls out to become a must-have. “You can plant herbs in them, and put them on your window sill,” said O’Carroll.
It’s O’Carroll’s imagination, her vision of function following form that create a wait list on items for customers like Rachel from Lancaster who recently purchased a chicken nester which she will hang on her porch wall, filled to the brim with flowers. Two spheres made of recycled metal will go in her garden. The set of gym lockers currently on display is already sold, so Rachel will wait for another set which she will use to store towels, linens and sundries in her guest room bath.
“This place is amazing – I have to tell my husband,” said another Rachel, from Glenside, having just purchased a small, imperfect Amish trug (basket, tray) made of wood, with meticulous tongue-and-groove work. A leather horse tack serves as a handle. The piece could be used for berries, mail, flowers; endless possibilities. O’Carroll found it at a farm auction in Lancaster, where berry bushes abound.
“I’m going to return a tray I just got from Target,” said Rachel. “I love the story behind this and that it’s not perfectly smooth. It has character.”
Originally from New York, O’Carroll grew up spending two weeks every summer visiting her mother’s family in the Baltic region of Germany. The rural countryside and farm houses of Europe were such an integral part of her childhood, and her move to western North Carolina later in life reignited her “love of rustic, handmade and homespun.”
She comes to Chestnut Hill with substantial retail and design credits, having owned and managed Milkhouse Antiques in Chester County for four years, and transplanting Isabella Sparrow to our village from Bryn Mawr this past September.
O’Carroll and her 6-year-old son live here now, and her son attends The Waldorf School.
“Our whole life is within walking distance,” said O’Carroll. “We live a walking life, which is environmentally the life of the future. Everything is here. Friendships grow here. We are one of the luckiest towns in America.
“When my dog died in October, this whole store was full of flowers from local people who had met my dog. People came in to cry with me. It’s that kind of community.”
Had she had a daughter instead of a son, “Isabella Sparrow” was going to be her name. “The name feels like me and it feels like this aesthetic, this look I’ve developed over the last 10 years,” said O’Carroll.
That aesthetic holds true for items that are new and have no history as yet.
“Great stuff for the kitchen,” as O’Carroll put it.
And there’s more than just kitchen, but she’s blended the old with the new so seamlessly, you are tempted to wonder which is which.
My picks: a European, long-necked watering can with beautiful age and patina, $20; a 180-year-old oak pie safe from Western, N.C., handmade by the great grandfather of one of O’Carroll’s friends, $1,100; locally made wine caddies, $12. Note: Much of the jewelry at Isabella Sparrow is also locally made.
You may notice there is little if any color at Isabella Sparrow. The voices of the inventory are all in softly muted tones. “The primary reason for that is a calming effect on the mind – humble behind nature,” said O’Carroll. “Whatever the season is, that’s the color, and this is the simplicity, the backdrop behind it.”
Aristotle would be proud of O’Carroll.