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Playing Footsie 

For a pair of Burlington businesswomen, finding a niche is a shoe-in

Imelda Marcos started the craze and the sassy ladies of HBO's "Sex and the City" are surely perpetuating it: shoes. Closets full of good shoes. Shoes that strut their stuff. Shoes that say, "I really care about my feet."

That is essentially the mantra of two Vermont women about to open their own shop, Stella Shoes, on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace. Piper Nightingale and Llyndara Harbour have found a natty niche -- though with those environmental-sounding names, they could be saving the Redwoods or the whales. Rather than calling their new endeavor, say, Nightingale Harbour, they chose Stella in honor of Harbour's great-grandmother. Scheduled to open April 4, the store will carry upscale brands for adults that are otherwise unavailable in the state: among them, Kenneth Cole, Via Spiga, Michael Kors, Gola and Michelle K.

"We realized that, like us, all our friends were going to Montreal and Boston for fashionable shoes," explains the 28-year-old Harbour, who moved east from San Francisco a year ago. "Everyone we surveyed said the same thing. We figured, 'If they're willing to drive to Boston, they'd be game for walking up a flight of stairs.'"

Stella is located on the second floor of an old downtown building that once served as a guesthouse for the Catholic Diocese. It's across the corridor from Phoenix Herbals and Imports, in what was once Athena's Attic. The historic setting makes for an interesting contrast: contemporary chic framed by the old-fashioned elegance of a pushed-tin ceiling, decorative fireplace, inlaid wood floor and immense arched windows overlooking the streetscape below. "This is such a great space," says Nightingale, 25. "We're going for the boutique-y feel."

The young entrepreneurs each have a background in retail sales but no formal business training. Harbour worked in cosmetics to put herself through school at California's Butte College and San Francisco State, where she was a women's studies major. Nightingale, a native of rural Woodstock, majored in English at the University of Vermont but felt even more passionate about ski racing.

Harbour says she was "one of those little girls who changed outfits 12 times a day." Nightingale was a "tomboy who didn't become interested in clothes until high school."

Nevertheless, the two were of one mind when they met while selling secondhand duds at a local outlet. "We kept having the same conversation about how badly Burlington needs another option for shoes," Harbour recalls. "Once we decided on the idea for our own store, we heard from so many women: 'I'm a shoe fanatic, so I'll be there.'"

Turns out that Footwear News, a trade publication, included Burlington in "the top-10 cities with the highest per capita shoe consumption," Harbour says. "Coincidentally, the Community Economic and Development Office did a Marketplace study and determined that the downtown needed a locally owned women's shoe store."

Late last year, after putting together a business plan that got them $50,000 from bank loans and private investors, Harbour and Nightingale went after the inventory. Their first adventure, in early February, took them to the annual World Shoe Association Trade Show in Nevada's sin city. Viva Las Vegas!

"They had over one million square feet of footwear," Nightingale says. "We knew nothing and walked right into the booth for Charles David, a very ritzy brand. We're pointing to shoes and going, 'Oh, isn't this cute?' A woman there said, 'Excuse me, do you have an appointment?'"

But the Green Mountain State contingent was soon winning hearts, minds... and soles. "Llyndara and I both have strange names," Nightin-gale acknowledges. "People would spot our name tags, and that was a real conversation-starter. Also, they'd see we're from Burlington and say, 'We don't have any customers there yet.'"

Perhaps envisioning the conquest of uncharted territory, the fashionistes began courting the newcomers, who were asked to send photographs of their upcoming emporium. "That's so they know their products will be displayed properly," Night-ingale explains.

Before long Stella was at the receiving end of shoe shipments. Harbour and Nightingale already have about 75 styles in stock and plan to increase that number in the fall. From Michael Kors, for example, there's an open-toed black leather mule and a tan leather sandal with a wooden high heel, each $140. A $60 sneaker in various shades of blue and an $80 patent-leather loafer come from Gola, a company that's been producing shoes since 1905.

The arrival of a UPS deliveryman with boxes marked "Made in China" but mailed from Los Angeles prompts excitement. "It's Christmas every day in here," proclaims Har-bour, slicing open the packages to reveal black Muse pumps with red star-shaped designs that will sell for under $100.

The store won't carry any of the Pradas, Guccis or Manolo Blahniks held in such high esteem by the "Sex and the City" gals. But Nightingale does imagine that Carrie Bradshaw, the show's lead character, "would be our best customer."

Although many of Stella's items are pricey, quality is key, according to the proprietors. "I want to spend a little more on my shoes and have them last," Harbour points out. "But we'll have a comfort line that's less expensive."

The selections "won't go by our individual tastes," Nightingale says. "Our sales reps tell us what is selling nationwide. For instance, right now the clog is in -- but, of course, it's sort of always in here. We're getting handmade shoes from California with hand-carved heels -- that'll be one of our more expensive lines. We'll have casual styles, too. Some-thing for everyone. Low-end funky sandals. Better flip-flops."

A bit of jewelry and some handbags will round out the accessories section of a store that measures a cozy 700 square feet. Meanwhile, the team has been painting the walls a subdued sandy pink, putting up shelves and dusting the chandelier-like light fixture. They're also calling around the world to make sure their orders are on the way. "Some of our lines are imported from Asia and, with the war on, it's hard to get anything right now," Nightingale says.

Stella's promo benefits from the efforts of loved ones: Both owners have boyfriends with a flair for the written word -- a press release, for instance, promises the store will bring fine footwear into a community that's "hungry for hip." Their business card was designed by Harbour's brother, a graphic artist.

Synchronicity and synergy do seem to be in their favor. "We needed an electrician, but they're hard to get on short notice," Nightingale notes. "Then I found one who happens to be from my hometown. He came right over. How lucky is that?"

And how fortunate that these shoe-heads have found their true calling. "We actually get to go out and buy shoes for a living," Harbour gushes. "It's heavenly."

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