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Around Town: “Thank you for 30 Great Years!” Interview w/ Donna Toney.

This month, High Country Boutique (HCB) in downtown Lewisburg will be closing its doors after 30 years in business. Donna Toney opened this store in 1991. In the early days, she specialized in American art, fine crafts, and art wearables. In ’95, clothing and accessories dominated gallery sales and her business quickly became a stopping grounds for women seeking a functional wardrobe with the ability to make multiple outfits from fewer elements. In ’01, Donna again shifted the flavor of High Country by expanding globally. 

Donna Toney opened this store in 1991. In the early days, she specialized in American art, fine crafts, and art wearables.

The boutique/gallery would now include a collection of Shona Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe and art and crafts from other African countries, along with Chinese antiques. Since its start, High Country has been a medley of delight, all under the same moon. Learn more about Donna and her history with the business with our Q&A:

Q. What inspired you to open a boutique in downtown Lewisburg?

A. I was in Roanoke where I worked in an Art and Fine Craft gallery for a year before finishing my bachelor’s degree in English at Hollins College. I met a lot of Virginia artists during that time. My husband, Frank Hardy was a woodworker, his mother Kate was a potter, I had dabbled in fiber arts and we had friends in the craft world. We returned to Lewisburg and opened High Country Gallery. 

“After a few years, I realized I needed to branch out if I was to survive.”

We represented mostly Virginia and West Virginia artists. Of all the cities we had lived in, Lewisburg felt like home. Frank’s family had been invested in the town for two generations. I loved presenting the works of others to the public. After a few years, I realized I needed to branch out if I was to survive.  I brought in more wearables and became High Country Gallery and Boutique.

Q. What did Lewisburg look like when you opened?

A. There were a lot of empty buildings in the early 90’s.  The interstate opened up a quick avenue to other cities. Local money started going elsewhere.  By the early nineties, many downtown businesses had folded. Those of us who had come to the area to “live on the land” in the 60s and 70s started opening restaurants and shops in downtown.

“The Lewisburg Foundation had been formed to ‘save the town'”

The Lewisburg Foundation had been formed to “save the town” and they had made us a Historic District, taken down the wires on Washington St, and started beautification projects.

Q. Who have been your biggest supporters throughout the years?

A. Jim Wills, owner of Old Hardware Gallery, said “We have enough tourism to support you. Go ahead and open.”  Eddie and Munir Yarid rented me their old shoe store building.  They held it for a few months while we made our move and even painted the outside. Paula Greer of Lewisburg Floral was great moral support. Jim and Paula were leading the downtown merchants association.  These people were invested in turning the town around.  When Tag and Annabelle Galyean, of Tag Studio, arrived, they took over the Lewisburg Foundation and this was a game-changer.

“In many towns, there are chambers and other organizations that promote festivals and create tourist attractions.  This has not been so with Lewisburg.”

In many towns, there are chambers and other organizations that promote festivals and create tourist attractions.  This has not been so with Lewisburg.  The merchants association created the holiday festivities, the brochures, the advertising, the billboard, etc.  It was a labor of love and survival.  And, it had been mostly women doing it.

Q. What do you love most about retail and owning/operating your store in downtown Lewisburg?

A. Transitioning to a clothing boutique was fun for me.  I had studied “personal development” in Los Angeles in the 60s.  I knew how to choose styles for developing a “workable wardrobe.”  The basis of my business became helping women “build” a wardrobe that could fulfill many purposes.  I had leaned color analysis and this helped me put the most flattering colors on my customers.

“My first business in Lewisburg was in the early 70s. It was called The Academy, A Fashion Workshop.”

My first business in Lewisburg was in the early 70s. It was called The Academy, A Fashion Workshop.  It was upstairs in the City Hall building.  It lasted less than a year since there was little demand for it.  I was featured on Roanoke television and spoke to clubs and taught a class at the women’s prison.

After marrying John Francis, visiting his home country of South Africa, and being introduced to wholesalers of African art and craft, I brought Africa to Lewisburg.  I also met an Irish woman from Zimbabwe who represented Shona Sculptors.  I brought a show of it to the Greenbrier Valley Theatre for a benefit right after 9/11.

“I love representing artisans to the public.” – Donna Toney

Q. What were your most popular items?

A. Eileen Fisher clothing was my number one seller.  She believes in “elegant simplicity.”  Like me, she hoped women would dress intelligently.  Less can be more.

Q. What will you miss the most about High Country Boutique?

A. I’m going to miss the displaying of goods, both wearables and art. I love buying and selling.  I love representing artisans to the public.  I love talking to customers from all over the world.  And, I love helping women believe in their worth and beauty.

Q. What does the next chapter in life look like for you?

A. At 77, mother of four and grandmother of 8, I love that I was brave enough to have lived a diverse and interesting life.  The next chapter of my life will be filled with creative works: writing, gardening, crafts, cooking and lots of time with my family and my women friends.

Q. What would you like to share with our readers?

A. I’d like to share with local readers that having a small business in a small city is often an emotional roller coaster.  It goes to your core when friends and neighbors don’t show up at Christmas and they actually tell you where they spent their money for gifts.

When you walk into a small business, remember that you are walking into the personal creative space of your neighbor.  Be mindful of what you say, and spend your money in your community when possible.

“If you aren’t participating, start now.  Show up. Donate” – Donna Toney

We are so lucky to live here. People from all over the world are amazed when they arrive.  If you aren’t participating, start now.  Show up. Donate

It has been 40 years of devotion by many creative people to bring this city back to life. We have a diverse community now. We have Equity Theatre, unique shops, art galleries, restaurants, music, history and much more.

New energy is moving in. Let’s see what our future brings and thank you for 30 great years!

– HashtagWV #137. November 2021.
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HashtagWV Art & Entertainment is a high-quality print and digital multimedia platform for all things West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region. The editorial focus is local music, unique shopping, the arts, events, theatre, and food and drinks. tiktok.com/@hashtagwv

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