ONE OF A KIND

Updated: Nov 17

The colorful story behind Sharon Baker’s distinctive infinity shawls, shrugs, and scarves.


STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER

PHOTOGRAPHY JIMMY iENNER, Jr.


In the center of downtown Chester, Vermont, Sharon Baker wanders the floors of her thriving boutique, Sharon’s on the Common, at a leisurely pace. As she pauses in front of a shelf full of vibrant, multicolored shawls, her face lights up with a sincere smile. She holds up one of her prized custom-made pieces to the camera, teeming with gratitude as she speaks about the journey that led her to where she is today. The story behind her business is every bit as colorful and intriguing as the highly sought-after shawls, shrugs, scarves, and apparel pieces that line her store’s walls—and equally as unique as their extraordinary, one-of-a-kind patterns.


A Bold Decision


Baker was born in Bennington, Vermont, and raised further up north in Andover on a dairy farm. “Growing up, we literally lived the life of the Waltons,” says Baker. “The only difference is that there were three kids in our family, not eight, so we had a lot more work to do on our dairy farm.” Following her graduation from Chester High School, she enrolled at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, then transferred to Lyndon State College in Lyndon, Vermont. After leaving Lyndon State College without completing her undergraduate degree, Baker got married, had several children, divorced her former husband, and moved to Northeastern Massachusetts. While in Massachusetts, she worked as a Marketing Director for 15 years under Ernie Cherry, a successful entrepreneur who owned the British Colonial apartment complexes in Amesbury.

Eventually, Baker realized that she wanted to return home to Vermont. In 2009, she began looking for potential spaces in Chester where she could open an independent business. After finding a rental space in the downstairs floor of the building that now houses Sharon’s on the Common, she opened her store in May 2010.


The Power of Persistence


She returned to Vermont full time in April 2011, and jumped headfirst into her new venture. Unfortunately, Baker’s courageous career change coincided with the tail end of a nationwide economic recession, which created an unfavorable environment for emergent retail businesses. “In April of 2013, I literally had 49 cents in the bank. I was staring at the screen on my laptop and thinking, ‘What in the world am I going to do?” At the apex of her crisis of faith, Baker called her son, Jason, who gave her a much-needed pep talk. “I was very emotional. I thought that everything was going to collapse. Jason said to me, ‘Mom, I’ve never known you to quit. You’re going to figure something out.’” When Baker ended the call with her son, a thought popped into her head that would change her life forever. “I hung up the phone and began thinking about how much I loved the Indian shawls that I had down in the store. I remembered that I also had a sewing machine that someone had given me as a gift. I’m no trained seamstress, but I know how to sew a straight line. The original idea for the infinity shawl was born on that day.”

According to Baker, she created the infinity shawl as a potential solution for a common problem that many people faced when purchasing regular shawls. “Most people—including me—don’t know how to wrap shawls in the proper way. If they don’t know how to do it, the shawls can end up in their soup at dinnertime or fall down on the floor. People might get frustrated, leave their shawl in a drawer, and forget that they own it, even though it’s a beautiful piece of fabric.”

After Baker spent some time playing around with her shawls and perfecting an initial prototype, the first infinity shawl went out on her shop’s floor on May 18, 2013. “I’ll never forget that date, because a woman who was visiting Chester from out of town came through the door and said, ‘This is going home with me!’” Baker was encouraged by the customer’s response and swiftly made another infinity shawl in a similar style. Four days after she put the second infinity shawl on display in her store, a local customer came in and expressed interest in it. “She said, ‘This is really pretty!’ She put it on and walked around the shop with it, and another customer walked in and said, ‘Where did she get that?’ I told her that I could make another if she wanted one, and she ended up buying two of them that day. I’ve been making new shawls and finding different fabrics ever since, and the business has continued to grow.”


Infinite Potential


Since that fateful day in May 2013, word of the infinity shawls sold at Sharon’s on the Common continued to organically spread. As a result, Baker now produces hundreds of infinity shawls per year and has also branched out into making infinity scarves and shrugs. “I’ve made over 2,500 custom pieces over the past decade,” notes Baker. “I take finished products, cut them up, and turn them into what I like to call ‘super-finished products,’ which are completely different from anything else out there.” Baker explains that most of her infinity scarves are “patchwork pieces,” which are made from fabric left over from the infinity shawls.


Baker says that she buys most of her shawls from a vendor named Shaheen Mira, who makes trips from the Kashmir region of India to America every year. “I take the beautiful wool and cashmere, silk, and viscose shawls that he brings to me, cut them up, and turn them into other things. I’m his first stop when he comes to this country now, and I buy anywhere from 200-400 pieces per year from him.”

One of Baker’s favorite pieces from her collection of infinity scarves is the “Vermonter,” which is made by combining pieces of two different winter scarves together. “I call them the

Vermonter because whether you were born here, moved here, or are just passing through, eventually everyone wears plaid. They look like flannel, but they feel like cashmere.”


The shrugs sold at Sharon’s on the Common are made using a process that makes efficient and inventive use of her shawl fabric. “I create a jacket effect by cutting off the bottom of a shawl and making two sleeves. Shrugs sit on your shoulders in the same way that you would wear a shawl. The difference is that you can put your arms through them. Another nice thing about them is that they can be folded flat for travel purposes.”


Baker also offers a special service where she takes shawls that belong to her customers and turns them into wearable pieces. “The look on a woman’s face when she comes back to see her shawl that has been sitting in a drawer turned into a wearable piece of art is very satisfying.” As Baker’s business continues to grow, she is thankful for the dedicated clients who continue to return to her store, and she finds great joy in the stories that she hears from repeat customers. “One customer bought one of my wool pieces about four or five years ago. Her daughter wore it to a mall in Chicago. She was in a corporate department store, and the salespeople came up and asked her where she got her shawl. They said, ‘Did you get that here?’ She said, ‘No. My mom got it at a little shop in Vermont.’ Another woman told me that she took a trip to Paris and wore one of my pieces while she was on vacation. She was outside a Parisian café, and she took a picture of herself wearing it. Of course, I posted that photo on social media, because I was so excited! It’s just wonderful to see that happen. I like to tell people that all of these one-of-a-kind pieces are just like us—we’re all one of a kind, as well.”


A Closely-Stitched Community


Baker has stitched herself into the proverbial fabric of her local community in more ways than one.

By providing affordable spaces for other independent businesses to flourish, she pays forward the generosity that was shown to her by the original owners of the building that she once rented—and now owns.


Baker says that when Bob and Elaine Reed bought the property that now houses Sharon’s on the Common back in the early 1990s, the building was literally falling down. “The property has two buildings: a white colonial building in the front, and the red building where my shop is located in the back. The Reeds bought the property at foreclosure. They did their best to redo the building, because they wanted to turn it into an art gallery. They completely restructured the inside and interior of the building.”


After running Sharon’s on the Common for twelve years, Baker arrived at a financial position where she was able to purchase the property from the Reeds in 2022. “I put a deal together to buy the building, and before I closed on the property, I hired a wonderful contractor in town to help with the facelift.” The exterior of the building was refurbished and painted red with black trim, and black shutters on the upper windows were added as a finishing touch. “The building stands out in a stunning way now. It was hard to get people to walk down the alley to visit the shop before, but more people have started to come in, because it’s so attractive.”


As a result of Baker’s community-minded business approach, the white building now hosts five viable businesses, including Sage Jewelry & Gifts (which has its own entrance), Chester Candy, Little Art Supply Store, The Hugging Bear teddy bear shop, and a CBD shop, Down To The Roots. “I charge minimal rent rates for the businesses that occupy those spaces,” says Baker. “I want to give the owners a fighting chance.”

Baker has also taken it upon herself to host a series of pop-up events, which showcase the works of local artisans and craftspeople. “I primarily sell shawls, scarves, and clothing at Sharon’s on the Common, but I also sell pottery and wooden bowls made by local artisans, such as Brooks Heley and Joe Langton.” Baker’s fruitful interactions with local craftspeople served as the original inspiration for the “Artisan’s Alley” event series in 2019, which was the precursor to the current event series.

“I talked with the zoning administrator here in town and asked him if it would be alright to run a small market event on the side of my red building. I told him that I would stain the side of the building, clean it up, and put up a makeshift fence to avoid any potential issues with nearby property owners. He said, ‘Sharon, I think it’s a great idea. I love your creative way of thinking.’” After winning the approval of the zoning administrator, Baker christened the event “Pop Up Sundays at Sharon’s on the Common.” The event runs every Sunday from 10AM to 2PM during the warmer months. “We’ve only been going since the end of May 2022, but we average anywhere from 6 to 11 vendors at every event. We have a farmer, Nate Brown, with an amazing entrepreneurial spirit. He brings his own vegetables, sunflowers, habanero sauce, maple syrup, and eggs every week. Melanie Gregory makes fantastic jewelry with her company, Ancient Earth Designs. Every vendor brings something different, and I’ve gotten several more applications for new vendors already.”

In line with her unwavering commitment to community service, Baker has also given back to Vermont’s hospital system by working with Rutland Regional Medical Center (RRMC). She elaborates: “I was part of the ‘Give Back’ Program at the RRMC Gift Shop. Two people who worked for their foundation came here and saw the whole process of how my pieces are made. They fell in love with everything.” Baker ended up taking a trip to Rutland and talking to their sales manager, who ended up buying many of her pieces. “They paid full-price for my pieces, but I donated 30% of the proceeds to the Foley Cancer Center’s palliative unit. It felt great to know that I was able to help make a difference in a positive way.”


Baker finds incredible fulfillment in watching Vermont’s retail scene progressively blossom and develop and is happy to be a member of Vermont’s business community. “There are an awful lot of creative and resourceful entrepreneurs who live here. I like to think that we’re all on the same team and that we recognize the importance of helping each other out. I’m always honest with my customers, and I refer them to other businesses if I don’t have what they’re looking for. The business community in Vermont is very tight-knit, but it’s also welcoming, as well. I feel thrilled to be here. I’m 69 years old, but I feel like I’m just getting started. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it’s been an amazing experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”


ALL THE DETAILS:

facebook.com/SharonsShawlsandScarves

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