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Periwinkle Is Gift Central for the Holidays

December 16, 2015

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Judy Philactos/ photos by Joe Elbert.

Brook Mowrey's little hand-sculpted animals dressed in paper finery were the among the first things carried by Periwinkle owner Judy Philactos (the very first ones were tiny birds in silly hats). Brook initially made these little "charlottes" for Judy's birthday. Now there have been Valentine's charlottes, spring charlottes and on and on.

Periwinkle carries little “charlotte” dolls, sculpted and dressed in paper by artist Brook Mowrey–a charlotte for every occasion.

Judy Philactos and Periwinkle specialize in the holidays, which is why we’re rerunning this story about her and her terrific little shop. 

WHAT IS IT ABOUT Periwinkle that makes customers light up at the mention of its name?  Is it the artistic touch of owner Judy Philactos?  Or the enticing soap, toys, cards, chocolates themselves?

The big hits at the Periwinkle gift shop are Brook Mowrey's vintage-inspired crowns . . .

Brook Mowrey’s vintage-inspired paper and floral crowns are big hits at Periwinkle.

In the end, it might be the pleasing feminine feeling about the store that creates such  allure.  And because of her interest in keeping prices reasonable so that “anyone could come in and find a little something,” this shop on Livingston Street just off Connecticut Avenue in Northwest D.C.  is known for its selection of gifts for less than $50. When hearing local enthusiasts’ overflowing praise of her store, she says, “It’s nice to be recognized for something you’re passionate about.”

In-the-know customers come to Periwinkle for gift  baskets, widely known for both the contents and their artistic arrangement.  For any occasion — birthday, sympathy or just a gesture of friendship — Philactos conjures up a combination that is slightly different, more fragrant and often less expensive than you can find elsewhere.

Originally from New York, Philactos has lived in D.C. for 30 years, but she compares the feel of Periwinkle and its neighborhood of small shops to Greenwich Village, where she grew up.  Her artistic training began with childhood trips to Brooklyn every Saturday for classes at Pratt, followed by a college major in dance. After working in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, fancy food store, she discovered that, “I like food—it’s fun.” But the jobs became less fun, even boring. In the mid-1970s, Philactos became a connoisseur of cheese—teaching herself, then traveling to Europe to learn more, then teaching adult-ed classes—when “cheese was just being discovered in the U.S.”  When asked to do a book on cheese, though, she discovered she didn’t like to write.

Moving to Washington in the early ‘80s with husband and D.C. native Steve Heller, Philactos started a little carry-out on Pennsylvania Avenue. “[It was] called Ciao, which very few people could pronounce,” she says. “Steve made everything from scratch and it was very successful.”  But after about five years, when Philactos got pregnant, the extremely early hours grew burdensome and they sold off in 1987.

Ready to return to work in the early 1990s, Philactos was hired by Dean & DeLuca as bakery manager and after about two years became head of the gift department, where she began seeing the possibilities in gift baskets.  She soon realized she had to be her own boss. She quit, converted her basement to a workshop, began doing baskets full time and never looked back.

 “Gift baskets are math,” she says. “I was good at math. It’s a puzzle—fitting things in by size and shape. You start with a base and build.  I’ve always been visual.”

In 1999, tired of working alone in her basement, she started looking at possible store locations. One day driving by the old Hugo’s—a natural-foods supermarket that had recently closed and been converted into three small spaces—she saw, and liked, what became her neighborhood.  “It’s a place where people live, and it’s a good mix of people: the ‘Chevy Chase’ [Club] crowd, those who’ve lived here for 50 years, the elderly.”  She worried that even the one small space might be too large for a basket business, she says.  “But from Day One, it was a retail store. People wanted to buy from the shelves.” Philactos likes “the theater of retail: Each person who walks in the door, I think, ‘New show!’ or ‘What’s the party?’ ”

 The store’s best-sellers are scented candles, especially Seda France’s “Japanese quince.”  While Philactos is surprised at how many people buy scented candles, she admits that “there’s something magical about that scent.  People come to get something for their kids  and end up buying multiples of candles for themselves.” Philactos is also amazed at people who buy bulk candy and start eating before they leave the store.

Twenty-five percent of Periwinkle’s business is food—fancy chocolates, jams and jellies—and it’s the trickiest part, says Philactos: The chocolate is perishable, and close track must be kept of holiday food. But whereas she used to be left with too many chocolate turkeys and ended up giving them to a convent that helped addicts, she has gotten better at ordering.

For some people, the main draw is the Bridgewater pottery, especially the iconic creamy mugs with colorful birds. For others, it’s the Scout Collection by Bungalow ( a D.C.-based company owned by Deb and Ben Johns, friends of Philactos) with its brightly colored printed bags. And then there are the baskets: That business is word of mouth, according to Philactos, a word she would like to slow down, because she has all the basket orders she can handle, around 25 baskets a day during the holidays. And she does them all herself. Periwinkle is generally “very holiday-driven,” says Philactos, with the fourth quarter accounting for 40 percent of her annual business (not so different from the pace at department stores and other retailers). Her favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.  September and October are difficult, she explains, with everything coming in that must be paid for. The basement and living room of her house fill up with merchandise, but business in that period is slow. She says: “I take Thanksgiving Day off and I’m excited—knowing I’m about to make money” at Christmas.

 Philactos says she has been lucky to work with people she likes. “I have women who get involved in the creative, then I tell them if I like it or not.” She has also employed “lots of boys” from the neighborhood, from Murch and Wilson schools.  Her main criterion for employees is “they must be pleasant. I set the stage, I’m nice and I work hard. They respect that and try to be nice too.”  Most of her staff stays for years.

“It’s stressful, but it’s like a party every day,” she says. “Every day I wake up happy to go to work.”

—Mary Carpenter and Amy Berger

3815 Livingston Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20015

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