It’s no surprise that Sara Villari, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, stocks her joyful and bright Occasionette stores in Collingswood and Philly with a highly curated selection of cards, gifts, and cheery offerings you can’t wait to use. As one of Etsy’s original employees, Sara honed her eye for finding unique and exclusive handmade products during her tenure there. Clearly, she knows what she’s doing– her thoughtfully organized stores have been featured in Good Housekeeping and on the Today show, and with this success, Villari is on track to open a fourth shop within a few months. We caught up with this South Jersey mama of a toddler on why tea towels led her to become a shopowner, the one thing she does to keep her work and life balance in check, and her go-to place in Haddonfield when she needs a gift, not from her shop.
Tell us a little bit about your family. My husband, Erik, and I have been married for almost ten years, and our daughter Olivia is 2 ½. Erik and I were living in South Philly but moved to Collingswood about eight years ago because it checked all the same boxes of living in the city but gave us more space and a very charming town to call home.
Tell us about your career background and how you’re on track to open up your 4th brick and mortar in less than ten years. I went to school for architecture and worked in the field before becoming one of the original employees working for Etsy. I was doing Community Management and Marketing–it was my gateway into the retail world. After leaving Etsy, I was an illustrator with a line of tea towels, which I was selling to a couple of hundred boutiques, and dreamed of having my own shop where someone could purchase a special card or little gift. When space came available, I leaped at the chance and opened my first brick-and-mortar shop in South Philly in 2013. After moving to Collingswood, I knew we’d thrive there, too, so in 2017, I made that happen. And then, I soon followed that up with another Collingswood shop, Occasionette Joy Shop, which only carries babies’ and kids’ things. It was a growing category for us, and it deserved its own generous space. Right now, we’re on schedule to open another Occasionette in mid-September. This one will be in Chestnut Hill in Philly.
You sold your tea towel business in 2018. How do you scratch that creative itch? Though I sold that business, I still make exclusive designs for the new owner and sell them in my stores from time to time. Also, I put a lot of thought into merchandising and displays in my shops— there’s a ton of creativity that goes into it.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly helpful for your work and life balance? For years I did everything working out of the shops, and I found myself putting out fires all day, but two years ago, I found a dedicated workspace in a beautiful art-deco building, and it’s been a game-changer for me because I can focus on each task at hand. It’s made such a difference in my quality of life. I have a wonderful team of people supporting me who are great problem solvers on their own, especially when I’m not right there. I also find it helpful to unplug. Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve been better at not checking in as much as I used to before she was born. It gives me a healthier and more satisfying balance and keeps me from feeling burned out.
What’s your bestseller? Lately, our candles have been one of our biggest categories, likely due to people being home more often and wanting to create a sense of peace. Candles are an effortless and accessible way to do that. Every year, starting around Labor Day, we sell a pumpkin lavender candle, which is my absolute favorite, and people can’t get enough of it. It’s got a nice herb component to it, which is why it sells out quickly every year.
Does your daughter enjoy visiting Occasionette? She loves it—and always runs right to the Jellycat plush animals, and somehow she always manages to get someone working to read a book to her.
Does your husband help out with Occasionette? My husband became a business owner this year, so he’s got his own hectic thing going on, too, but he is very supportive. He’s a structural engineer, so it’s great to have him on call when I look at spaces. And he’s also very handy, so he helps out when I’m in a pinch or if I have a “honey do” project that needs to be done.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? I think books are a great gift, and if I’m not gifting someone something from my shop, Inkwood Books is my go-to gift place. It’s everything you want a local bookstore to be—it has such a good feel, and I love to browse there. The team is knowledgeable, and the staff books are always right on target. Another favorite of mine is Maria’s Bread Sandwiches, a luncheonette café. Though everything is excellent there, I’m a sucker for her avocado toast. Also, there’s Haddon Culinary, a local grocery that’s very special, especially when you don’t know what to do for dinner—they have great prepared foods there.
What are some of your favorite family activities or places you enjoy together in NJ? We live close to the local pool and go there a lot. We also like to take a long drive to Lambertville, check out the antique shops, and walk along the canal. It kept us sane during lockdown when Olivia was an infant.
What’s your best piece of advice for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? Figure out what your priority is for the day. That’s the most significant part of it. Having kids and owning a business takes a lot of juggling, but it puts things in perspective when you figure out what needs to be taken care of each day.