By Noelle Paredes
Liz Carrino’s sweatpants are stained and a bit tattered from the day’s work, and her hands are speckled with bits of dried paint. Still, her blonde hair is neatly styled and her fingernails display a flawless French manicure. Everything around her demonstrates this same apparent contradiction. Elaborate vanities with delicate hardware and ornate mirrors are painted and made to look distressed, worn in a way that makes them even more beautiful. Carrino is the perfect combination of shabby and chic, a quality that she has managed to turn into a successful career.
Carrino, 54, owns Not Too Shabby, a furniture restoration and home décor boutique, in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey that specializes in refurbishing vintage furniture. She discovered her passion when she decorated her own home, and now her work transforming vintage furniture has turned her small-town operation into a lucrative business with clients from all over the country.
“I’m just addicted to old furniture,” Carrino says. The addiction started long before her store opened, while she was still employed in New York City as a fashion buyer. When she moved into her home in Hasbrouck Heights, she furnished it in the true shabby-chic style originated by author and designer Rachel Ashwell, complete with painted furniture, floral fabrics and lavish chandeliers. Her home was featured in the Bergen County Record in 2008.
“Your home should be someplace where you find comfort and you’re at peace,” she says. “My whole home is like that.”
But she never seriously considered turning her passion into a career until a family tragedy changed her perspective.
After working in the fashion industry for 30 years and growing increasingly unhappy with her job, her father’s sudden passing was the tipping point for Carrino. As the biggest influence on her career, his passing provided the push she needed to finally open her store.
“You just realize that life’s too short,” she says, choking back tears. “Really too short.”
Still, the decision to open the business was not easy. A steady job, a constant paycheck, and health insurance were difficult to let go of, and when she began moving into the store, the new business owner had her doubts.
“I never put a sign up, but the door was unlocked and I’m in the back, on the floor, painting, and I started talking to my father,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Dad I need a sign. Like, what am I doing?’ ”
Then the door opened and her mother walked in with a man and his family. The man was an acquaintance of her father coming to offer his condolences, but a little bench caught his wife’s eye. When he asked Carrino how much it cost, she was so shocked to be making a sale that she blurted out $100 without thinking. He handed her the $100 and left the store to get his truck to pick up his purchase.
“So he walked out the door, I had the $100 in my hand and I’m like, ‘Okay Dad.’ ” She had gotten her sign.
Now it’s hard for the former fashion buyer to see herself with another job, but being a small business owner has not been without its challenges, especially in a small town where retail can be unpredictable and very inconsistent. In fact, a lot of stores similar to Not Too Shabby have closed in recent years, as shoppers are flocking to malls instead of small businesses.
“There was a time when business got tough, and I went back to work in the city in my old business,” she recalls. “You might as well have put a noose around my neck and hung it from the ceiling. It would have been less painful than going to that job. It’s not inspiring. It’s not creative. I need to do stuff that’s creative.”
Fortunately six years after opening her business, Not Too Shabby has an expanding clientele that includes customers from all over the country. Many customers find her store from online listings, as well as her shop on Etsy.com, and Carrino says she still gets a lot of business from good word of mouth. While it could be the recent growth of online shopping that has helped Carrino’s business to grow, it is clear that the quality of her work and devotion to customer service has been the hallmark of her success over the years.
The entrepreneur has a keen ability to look at a rundown piece of vintage furniture and instantly know a way to refurbish it for the present.
“I have vision. I can look at something, no matter how dilapidated it is, and know what I’m going to do with it,” she says.
And this is an ability her customers value. They also value the personal touches and extra effort that Carrino puts into her work. Though she runs the entire business virtually alone, she takes the time to work with each client individually to make sure they’re getting exactly what they want. She visits peoples’ homes to figure out color schemes, tracks down vintage components, and she even adds a fresh coat of paint on finished pieces before they leave the store.
“I make sure stuff’s perfect,” she said. “If it’s local, I do the deliveries to save people money. There’s just a lot that goes into what I do for people. It’s not something I charge for, it’s just what I do,” she explains.
When Catherine Licata discovered Not Too Shabby online, she hired Carrino to work on nearly every room in her home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, from entire bedroom sets and bathroom vanities to chandeliers and French linen curtains. “A lot of Liz is in my house,” Licata says with a laugh.
Carrino took the time to sit down with her and piece together each room in her home. She even asked to see Licata’s china, so that she could pick up one of the colors from the china in the dining room seat covers.
“I felt like she really got to know me and was like my sister,” Licata said. “I really wanted it to be me, and she really accomplished that.”
The classes typically meet for three hours, once a week, over a six to eight week period. Students can bring in pieces of furniture that they want to work on, and throughout the course of the class, Carrino will show them how to put different finishes on the pieces.
With everything that she does for the customers of Not Too Shabby, Carrino acknowledges that her schedule can get hectic. Her store isn’t open every day, but she is there seven days a week working on different projects, consulting with clients and teaching classes. Still, the small business owner is looking forward to taking on even more in the future.
“I would like to do something with HGTV,” she said. “Just taking it to the next level.”
For Carrino, the decision to turn her long-time hobby into a career was risky. While it has not been easy, it pushed her to work harder than ever before, something she says has been worthwhile.
“I love to paint. I love to transform things. I love to rummage around flea markets. Not Too Shabby is what happened when I put it all together.”