Sheila Fiorello, owner of Pacific Leather.

Sheila Fiorello, owner of Pacific Leather.

by Jeremy Jones

Sheila Fiorello didn’t “find” her niche in the retail business, she created it, and with the attuned savvy and skill of a pro, she puts power in the niche she originally created by evolving with ever-changing times, fashions and customers’ needs. Knowing the pulse of her niche and her clientele has made her small boutique for women a winner for 39 years.

For 39 years, Pacific Leather has been at the same location: 8617 Germantown Ave. For 39 years one of Chestnut Hill’s most familiar storefront awnings has secured its place at the very top of the Hill like a neighborhood landmark, weathering seasons of retail economic fluctuation and formidable local competition. Awnings of big name, overprocessed retailers have gone up and come down in our village, while this little specialty shop stayed strong and on course.

Fiorello said one of the most important things she has learned in almost four decades in business is, “Your customer wants to know you are interested in them as a person. You remember things they’ve told you, your last conversation with them. And now I might be helping them pick out a wedding outfit, but I remember when they came in in a baby stroller.

“I’ve sort of adapted to my customers’ needs. My customer base is older, 40 and up, so when they say something like, ‘I don’t wear sleeveless,’ I listen and try to meet their needs.”

This is the kind of relationship-building that recently brought a couple in for a visit. They moved from Chestnut Hill seven years ago, but while here for a graduation ceremony, they “just had to come in and say hello.”

And this is why a customer from Bucks County travels all the way to Pacific Leather to shop. “I’m so happy with what I just purchased,” said the customer on a recent visit. “It’s all wash and wear! She [Fiorello] helps me so much by pulling sizes and giving me ideas. It’s worth the trip and it beats going to the mall.”

Another key to Pacific Leather’s success and longevity is something department stores and even most boutiques don’t do, and that is continuously re-stock with new items.

“I have people come in every two weeks to see what’s new,” said Fiorello. “Even though we’re a small store and it’s a tight space, we try to always have something new come in for the good duration of the season. In department stores, by July half the stuff is for fall, just when people are going on vacation in July and August. Women want to spruce up their wardrobe a little bit. They don’t want leftovers, especially going on vacation.”

Yet another Pacific Leather plus is a mid-range price point.

“I try not to be high end,” said Fiorello.

Spring sweaters are currently 20 percent off. So, let’s go shopping.

Leather hand bags: A wide variety of attractive and functional well-made bags, $150-$275.

Vegan leather bags: Vegan leather gets more press with each celebrity or designer who creates a new line using this faux-leather material, which is either synthetic- or vegetable-based and creates an amazing fabric-finish substitute for the real thing. The shop carries lots of styles in subtle tones and vibrant colors, $60-$110.

“What might cost $200 in leather would be $75 in vegan,” said Fiorello.

Leather women’s and men’s wallets: The classics you expect at Pacific Leather, $35-$85.

Blundstone waterproof unisex leather boots: So, so popular, $155.

Hats: Pacific Leather carries a copious variety of beach hats, rain hats, straw hats, campy hats and hats treated with UPF 50+ sunscreen. Prices vary – $55 is the mid-range; Colorful cotton-blend berets, $19; Men’s fedoras and fedora-style rain hats, $35-$65.

Also for men: Cotton-blend socks with fun motifs. The “bicycle” socks are sold out for now, but the “martinis” and other great styles are available, $10.

Shoes: Comfort and eclectic easy-going styles in size 7-10 await you.

My picks: Lusciously real-looking saddle-brown convertible vegan tote bag with accompanying medium-size bag and kangaroo pouch – great for travel and/or a laptop, $84; Straw, wide-brim garden party hat with sage-green satin band and poetic pastel flowers, $72; Made from the finest Austrian and Czech resins, a line of multi-colored iridescent beaded jewelry inspired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of modern and contemporary art, $30-$75.

P.S. In my Shop Local opinion, Pacific Leather is a secret find for younger women as well.