IOWA CITY — “Ever since I was a little kid, I loved clothes,” Sandra Navalesi said. “When my daughter graduated from high school, I said, ‘I need to get a life.’”
That realization and Navalesi’s childhood fascination led to the April 1, 1996, opening of Dulcinea, a downtown Iowa City fixture ever since. She’d operated an independent cleaning business for 11 years but had no previous retail experience.
“It was successful from the beginning,” Navalesi said. “Things have changed a bit, with the internet and competition and I’ve had some bumps in the road with employees, but I’ve gotten that down.”
The boutique’s latest change will come Aug. 1, when Clare Mummey becomes its owner. Both women expect a seamless transition.
“I love it the way it is,” Mummey said. “I feel like it can’t fail. Sandy has a great handle on what’s working and what has worked.”
Longtime customers may be reassured that one of their own is taking over.
“I shopped here in my younger days,” said Mummey, a hairstylist until now. Her friendship with Navalesi grew after her husband, Ben, bought another downtown landmark, the Deadwood Tavern, two years ago. The bar is two doors down from Dulcinea.
“It just seemed like it happened so organically over time,” Mummey said.
“I started thinking I wanted to retire at some point,” Navalesi said. “Clare came in, and I don’t even remember how it came up. We were standing at the counter and I said, ‘Would you be interested?’”
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“Sure would,” Mummey recalled her reply. “It’s very my style, and I think I’ll be a good representation.”
Navalesi has reassured a few longtime customers she’ll remain involved in the store’s operation.
“They’re sad to see me go, but I say, ‘Nothing’s going to change,’” she said. “I’m going to be her consultant for as long as she needs it. I’m very honored that she wants to be a part of it.”
Both women expect the store will continue evolving while maintaining its founder’s defining focus. Navalesi named the store for an unseen character in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote.”
“I’ve always said it’s (for) cool women of all ages,” Navalesi said. “Casual bohemian. It’s always been that way, although as times change and fashion changes you always change with it.”
Writing Dulcinea’s business plan in the pre-internet age, Navalesi had to write and mail an actual letter to the Census Bureau in Kansas City for information on Iowa City demographics.
The technology that’s made that information readily available also has brought new competition, but Navalesi thinks independent shops such as Dulcinea will retain their place for at least another generation.
“Millennials, their shopping habits are either online or in small boutiques,” Navalesi said. “They get the one-on-one, they get the feel and touch.”
Dulcinea’s online presence is strictly informational.
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“We have a little website, but we don’t sell off it,” Navalesi said. “What I love is the one-on-one with people and the relationships we build.”
“I have no desire to do that,” Mummey said. “What if you buy six pieces and you post on there, and five people want it? Who has the time to pull things off the shelves when you’re trying to have that experience with people in the store?”
Navalesi is optimistic downtown residential development will bring more customers to Dulcinea’s brick-and-mortar site.
“I’m very excited about all the condominiums they’re building right down here,” she said. “Those people that are wanting to buy and live down here, we’re what they’re looking for. They want to walk downtown for shopping.”
If and when they do, Mummey intends Dulcinea to remain a familiar, comforting presence.
“I want it to remain the Dulcinea everybody knows and loves,” said Mummey. “Because that’s what I know and love.”
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At a glance
• Owner: Sandra Navalesi (until Aug. 1); Clare Mummey after that date
• Business: Dulcinea
• Address: 2 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Phone: (319) 339-9468
• Website: dulcineaia.com