Retail giants and online juggernauts may be convenient clickbait for shoppers, but nothing can emulate the feeling of walking into your neighborhood boutique and being greeted by familiar smiles. On an average day at PepperLou Gifts, the charming shop buzzes with local Memorial residents searching for products curated by owner Valerie Alek Cassady and her daughter Ellie, an 18-year-old special needs student at Stratford High School. “Everyone says it just feels good in here. It’s a good place to come into,” says Cassady.
Indeed, when you enter PepperLou Gifts, it’s easy to feel a sense of belonging. Perhaps it’s the sweet-smelling candles or handmade goods, but the family-owned Houston business has imbued the community with its spirit. Celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, Cassady opened PepperLou Gifts for her daughter Ellie to take ownership of and contribute to once she graduates high school.
Cassady would regularly visit the local Hallmark store with Ellie and always felt connected to the shop owners and their son with special needs who worked there. The idea to open up her own gift store with Ellie started as a fun concept ... for the future. PepperLou Gifts, lovingly named after Ellie’s cats Pepper and Pixie Lou, came to fruition quicker than the Cassady family could imagine.
Cassady's interior decorating business, Alek Stockard Interiors, had outgrown its office space and moved to a storefront in a Memorial shopping plaza. But once she moved in, Cassady realized it was much too large for her decorating business. “It was like God hit me over the head, and I thought ‘the store—this is the time to do it’,” she recalls.
Ellie, a manager and spirit girl for her school cheerleading team, exuberantly jumped at the chance to work with her mom in a shop they’d run together. “I’m really thankful because of all of it. I’m really happy about it,” says Ellie with a wide smile and an infectious giggle.
Browsing through the shop is like turning the page in the Cassady family scrapbook. Each section is filled with treasures they’ve found while traveling to destinations they love, like Charleston, South Carolina. Hand-painted oysters from South Carolina maker Grit & Grace, clay blessing bowls from Mississippi, and Texas-shaped ornaments line the tables around the store entrance. Napkin rings, sculptures, artwork, accessories, paper goods, and holiday trinkets are stacked high on the shelves of the inviting gift shop.
“I want something different. I want to support somebody else that is trying to make a go of their small business,” says Cassady, who finds makers across the U.S. on Etsy and within her community. “Small businesses are what support fundraisers for schools and donations to auctions, and big-box businesses like Amazon can't do that.”
Ellie has also inherited her mother’s discerning eye for decor. Ellie’s Corner, a section of the store curated by Ellie herself, is overflowing with stylish and playful souvenirs. From leopard-print bags to “Unicorn Snot” body glitter and cards, Ellie finds items that bring her joy to share with shoppers. “It’s so much fun,” Ellie says of working alongside her mom to find products for her corner.
One year ago, Cassady couldn’t have anticipated the support PepperLou Gifts would gain from the community. She had posted in Memorial Area Trading, a Facebook group with more than 3,800 members, about the grand opening event and saw an overwhelming response. “I was literally in the back [of the shop] almost in tears of fear and joy because we just started selling out stuff,” she remembers. The shop had sold out in its first two weeks of business.
“The community really has stepped up to support us, and they all love Ellie,” Cassady says. “Ellie is a special, special girl. Everyone talks about how joyful Ellie is and how happy she is all the time. She’s a little celebrity.”
As Ellie prepares to graduate and Cassady runs both of her businesses, the two are looking forward to what the future holds for PepperLou Gifts. Visit the gift shop online or at 14208 A Memorial Drive.