Inside Julie Tenney's Lorelei Boutique in South Tempe

Julie Tenney spent the better part of two decades in the corporate world, bouncing from public relations and marketing to communications for large companies like Honeywell and Wyndham Hotels. She was happy, she says, and she was good at her job, but when she moved back to the Valley from New Jersey in 2011 she knew she was looking for a change.

"I really dreamed of this," says the 40-something mother and small business owner. "Having to dress myself in my career I got so tired of the blazer-and-the-pants or the blazer-and-the-skirt. I fell in love with boutique shopping because you can go and get a very special blouse that you can pair with your corporate look. Or a dress. Or a skirt. Just more unique pieces."

She toyed with the idea of opening her own store but kept coming up with excuses. First, the economy wasn't good. Then she thought she needed more time to plan. She was loving her career. Her daughter was about to start high school. There was always a reason — a good reason — to wait.

Then, a personal tragedy hit her hard. Last February, more than a year and a half ago, her father passed away. It was Valentine's Day and an unexpected shock that left her rattled, but determined.

"It was very sudden," Tenney says, her voice catching as her eyes well up — but don't spill over. "I was like, 'Life is too short is a cliché for a reason,' [and] I decided I was going to go for it."

Named for her mother and daughter after the legend of the Lorelei Siren on the River Rhine, Lorelei Boutique opened its doors in Tempe last fall. The 650-square-foot space is divided in half, with her husband's photography studio occupying the back space and Tenney's destination shop as the storefront.

"We don't really have anything like this [in this area]," she says, noting the distance from the college and downtown areas of Tempe and the greater East Valley.

The women's boutique offers chic outfits and unique accessories from rings and necklaces to handbags and hats and was a marked success. The holidays proved busy, with anywhere from 10 to 20 shoppers at a time (in the off-season, Tenney says 10 to 15 sales constitutes a good day). She offered open houses with cocktails and refreshments — and is planning one in time for the boutique's one-year anniversary on October 1. Meanwhile, just seven months into her new business venture, Tenney's boutique was named one of Arizona's 10 Best by USA Today.

"I wanted to be where we lived and I think this is an awesome market," says Tenney, who also lives in south Tempe. Lorelei Boutique is located just off McClintock Drive south of Guadalupe Road, and might otherwise be missed if it weren't for the strip mall's anchor locations: Changing Hands Bookstore and  Trader Joe's.

Tenney credits both businesses for helping drive hers, with celebrity signings and Changing Hands bringing in people from all over the Valley and Trader Joe's being a destination grocery store for a particular, niche market.

"I get a lot of ladies that come in the store and say, 'This is so great that I found you,'" she says "And they come back. [There's] awesome foot traffic in the plaza.

"I've had a lot of guys just come in because they're going to Trader Joe's or dropping off their dry cleaning and they're just like, 'Wow, this is so great that you're here! Can you help me find something for my wife?'"

Her demographic spans late 20s to early 60s, from women who want a special piece or an item for their kids to husbands and boyfriends doing gift or special occasion shopping. The diversity of her customers came as a bit of a surprise, but it's a welcome one that affords Tenney the opportunity to do what she always wanted — and loves.

"It's been so fun and I've met so many great people. I really believe that in an environment like this it's as much about hospitality as it is about the product," she says. "Yes, you absolutely have to have beautiful and special products for people to come back, but it's about the experience when they're shopping, having that one-on-one: being able to help them, getting to know them — what they like, what they don't like, what wears really well on them and [what] flatters them."

Most of Lorelei Boutique's clothing stock, which Tenney says are her biggest sellers, come from Los Angeles. Colorful yet professional blouses adorn the racks lining the walls of the store as patterns and bold prints mix with stand-out colors like teal and green. The store is approachable, yet upscale — lived in, yet purposefully styled. She prefers to carry mostly blouses and skirts, completing looks with accented jewelry and handbags from Big Buddah (a Steve Madden subsidiary) and an Italian leather line out of New York City. ("Most people want to put a whole look together," she says.)

"It was an empty shell when we moved in, so we got to design it too which was fun," Tenney says. She enlisted the help of an old friend from high school (she attended Westwood High School in Mesa before moving to Tucson and receiving a journalism degree from the University of Arizona) who specializes in found objects. "[She has] an eye for finding pieces and also does chalk paint to refurbish them." The finished products, former dressers and room separators, hand clothes and store jewelry.

The store features some of Tenney's personal favorite brands, like Lovestitch. She holds up a patterned maxi dress with pockets and a harem cut. Turns out, she's wearing the same one in a navy blue solid. (The print version is $52; the solid is $48.)

"I have a couple of great price points that start in the $30s," she says, while holding up a chevron pattern tank in light tan and white (from Language, $105). "I try to stay under the $100 range. I'd say my best sellers are in the $50 to $85 area."

The boutique boasts brands like Art & Co., Dylan, Jenny Bird, Kendra Scott, and nearly a dozen others. Near the rear of the store is an entire table dedicated to a display by jeweler Chocolate Robin, a local designer who splits her time between north Phoenix and Minnesota. Creator Louise Duckworth takes found objects like men's cuff links, mosaic tile, and dress clips and turns them into earrings and necklaces. The one-of-a-kind pieces are popular with both men and women shoppers, Tenney says.

Whether you're looking to expand and change up your closet, or looking to establish a designated style, Lorelei Boutique promises something for everyone. To prove it, Tenney offers some of her go-to fashion advice below:

On changing up your career pieces: "This can be a bit dressier," she says, holding up a pull-on midi-skirt from I Love Tyler Madison. The brand, out of Canada, focuses almost exclusively on skirts and pants that are "literally pull on," she says. The skirt in hand ($98) is a thick, black material, but not warm, with a leather stripe detail down the side. "You can do anything with a black skirt," she says.

On skinny jeans: Tenney admits that many shoppers come in looking for dresses or tops rather than bottoms, as finding the right cut, fit, and color of pants and denim is often a lifelong search. "They want to come in and get a piece that they can already pair with a jean they have," she says. 

Lorelei only carries one brand of denim, Blank NYC, featuring shirts, shorts, and skinny jeans. Shirts run $88, shorts are $68, and prices of jeans vary.

"You can never go wrong with a great skinny jean," she says. "It's comfortable, but you can dress them up with jewelry and heels and change the whole look."

On staying warm, and stylish, during Valley "winters:" "It's hard to think about now, but I'm so excited for fall," she says, admitting that she and her friends rarely break out a proper jacket or coat during chillier months. "I love a good vest for Arizona. A vest is great because it can be warm and beautifully styled."

She holds up a stitched vest by BB Dakota in a mauve-purple hue with black leather lining. (Similar style seen here in black.) "You can wear this with a tank underneath it," she suggests, "Or layer a sleeve or long-sleeve for the fall."

On breaking your mother's jewelry etiquette: "I love that all the rules went out the window," she says. "Now you can do just about anything. I love layering; I love mixed metals. I try to encourage ladies to go beyond that one statement piece. I love what they're doing with semi-precious gems, making them more, not casual but .... [accessible]. It's beautiful, it's dressy — but not super dressy."

On taking chances: "When you think about shopping, get out of your comfort zone," she says. "Yes, you're going to have the brands you love and the stores you love, but stop in [Lorelei]. Check it out. When you go to an environment like this I hope I'm offering something different and completely special."

Lorelei Boutique is located in the Tempe Square Shopping Center, equidistant between Trader Joe's and the original Changing Hands Bookstore at 6440 South McClintock Drive in Tempe. Open Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays until 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon until 5 p.m. Visit for a complete list of designers or call 480-491-1230 for more information.

Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Julie Tenney's last name.
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard