Shari Gerstenberger is a fanciful redhead who forwent her original career plan to write and edit within the walls of a big publishing house and found herself on an unexpected path to open the flirty, coquettish Charm School Vintage on Austin's East Side.
Maybe it's those tumbling locks, but there seems to be a streak of wildness to Shari's personality. That and a natural knack for business — a unique combination that probably allowed her to change life-directions with such a sense of serenity.
Her closet is, of course, accordingly out of this world. It's one part ethereal, one part tribal and no part ordinary.
Shari went to high school and college in Colorado, where her parents still live. After feeling rather uninspired by the post-college publishing interviews she had in New York City ("I was just scoping it out, seeing what the inside of that life looked like, and it was like, 'That's not how I want to live'."), Shari came to little old Austin for what was supposed to be the summer.
Like the many others who've become entranced by Austin's spirit, Shari decided to stay and picked up a job at Buffalo Exchange by chance, where she says she learned the fundamentals of the vintage industry.
Nowadays when she returns home to Colorado, she teaches her mother the tricks of the trade. "It's funny, because our visits now are her going thrifting with me — it's really sweet," she says.
On the latest trip, the duo found a gorgeous mother of pearl squash blossom necklace in — where else? — a pawn shop.
"We stopped in this one pawn shop randomly, and they had all of this great jewelry. So then we went to every single pawn shop in this valley that we live in, and they were all guns and chotskies," she laughs. "I realized [finding this necklace] wasn't normal, but you never know until you look! Anytime you look, you find something."
Shari doesn't like to pigeon hole herself with one definition of style. "I feel like I'm kind of all over the place. I like to dress differently each day." That flexibility represents the transformative power of fashion that she's passionate about.
Even so, one can see by looking around her home and closet that her eye is repeatedly drawn to a certain group of materials.
"There are specific textures certainly that i come back to... crochet, lace... love a white or cream sundress," she explains. "And I love-love-love-love Victorian, old fragile antique pieces."
Shari found one dress (L) particularly representative of her feminine style while antiquing in Smithville. "There are a couple of loops that I make through [Central Texas]. There are just so many people picking in Austin that you just don't find much until you get out of town."
Instead of filing her items away in dark corners of her closet, Shari subscribes to a method of organization that she learned from Apartment Therapy's book The Eight-Step Home Cure.
"If you have a collection that's living in a box somewhere, then it's just cluttering you," she explains of her outwardly displayed accessories.
"But if you collect something and it's out and displayed and you enjoy it, then — by all means. I want to own these things because I think they're beautiful. I don't want them away in a drawer."
Instead, she quite literally turned drawers (sewing drawers, to be exact) on their heads, using them as display cases for necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
Over the years, Shari has been gifted items from friends and acquaintances aware that she's in the vintage business and confident that she can serve as the perfect matchmaker between treasure and future-owner.
This beaded and mesh one-piece was given to her by a patron of a restaurant where she formerly worked and has appeared in countless photoshoots and fashion shows like Fashion Freakout around Austin.
The trouble with true vintage (i.e., 20 years or older) is that it's going to show its age. But that's the beauty of it.
"If something is really amazing, then it's unlikely it never got worn, so there is discoloration and imperfections," Shari explains.
"You just kind of have to accept that you have to mend it afterwards or that in the course of wearing it, it might die. Some of my favorite Victorian dresses I have danced off my body."
When entering her home, visitors' eyes zone right in on the perfectly displayed vignettes around Shari's living room.
"I feel really sensitive to my environment, the same way I feel really sensitive to the clothing that I wear, which I want to be effortless."
"Everything is meaningful. Glass is a water element, candles are a fire element, and depending on where all of these things are placed in your home, it brings the right energy," she says.
"Whether it's actually doing something or not, I feel like it's about setting the intention that this is the part of my house that's devoted to my health and well being — and I want to pay special intention to that."
The part of Shari's house that pays special attention to footwear? The pantry in the kitchen, of course!
She says this is the first time she's lived alone, and she's taken full advantage of that.
"When I was looking at this place when I was taking it over from my friend, I was looking around and automatically imagining my shoes in evey closet," she says with a laugh.
What does someone who is always hunting down killer pieces for others keep for herself?
"I'm a [shoe] size 9, so when I find awesome wooden and leather platforms in my size, I have to keep them," she says. "I love pieces that are being knocked off over and over again, but I want the original.
Shari wears a chained ring piece by friend and local jewelry designer Margot Wolf, which can be worn in a variety of ways.
"The pieces of hers that I love are multifunctional. I find this in clothes too. Like if I find a dress that I can wear as a skirt or turn around backwards, I'm sold."
There's an old pink typewriter on her living room table that perhaps reminds Shari of the path she could have taken. But the change of plans she witnessed a few short years ago has served her (and Austin) better than any calculated career move.
"The process feels really organic. I have a plan, but it's not so specific as 'In six months im going to be here,'" Shari says, "because amazing things have happened to me that I never could have imagined six months ago. If I was so focused on one thing occurring, I would have missed out on all of this."
As for the future of Charm School, treasure-hunters can continue to expect that perfect balance to be struck.
"I feel like with my store — and also my clothes — there's always this balance between what makes sense with a girl's every day life and then this fantastic whimsy of imagination and how magical things could be."