A HAVEN FOR HIKERS AND OTHER OUTDOORSY TYPES, HIGHLANDS, N.C., ALSO HAS A HOPPING RETAIL SCENE.

Highlands, a haven for hikers, fishermen and discriminating shoppers, is tucked nearly a mile above sea level in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, around three hours north of Atlanta. Settled in the 1880s as a summer retreat, its population expands from 2,000 full-time residents to nearly 20,000 in the summer months.

Just minutes from the town’s center, hikers can enjoy the wilderness trails and scenic vistas on Whiteside and Satulah Mountains, both nearly 5,000 feet at their peaks. Post-hike noshes include the vegetarian-friendly sandwiches at Fressers’ Eatery, to cappuccino and scones at Buck’s Coffee Cafe. Meat eaters flock to Wolfgang’s On Main for steaks and the Central House in the Old Edwards Inn.

Retailers on Highlands’ wide, walkable Main Street offer art, antiques, upscale crafts, clothing and gifts, drawing visitors and seasonal residents from Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Florida. There are almost a dozen clothing boutiques in two blocks, and more than 50 shops overall in downtown Highlands. Gloria Belvedere, co-owner of Suzette’s Boutique, said she regularly hears customers proclaim they’re “sick of malls,” though the nearest mall is two hours away in Atlanta.

Such sentiments have apparently not gone unnoticed by Highlanders. A slogan used by the Chamber of Commerce proclaims, “If you’re bored by the mall, you’ll love Highlands!”

Below, WWD looks at a few of Highland’s many specialty-store options.

SUZETTE’S BOUTIQUE

Suzette’s Boutique carries a mix of contemporary women’s wear, accessories, wearable art and gifts. Their core customers, representing 30 percent of their business, are the “six-monthers,” who own generations-old summer homes in Highlands and are in town from spring through fall.

After selling their three Suzette’s Boutiques on Florida’s west coast in the Eighties, Charlie and Gloria Belvedere relocated to Highlands, where they had vacationed with their children, and opened a Suzette’s, named for their youngest daughter. In 1999, the 11-year-old store moved across Main Street, upgrading from 700 to 1,200 square feet of retail space.

Ani Barrie’s handmade chenille or cotton sweaters with artistic buttons and details have been a year-round staple for Suzette’s, avidly collected by customers who make annual pilgrimages for the newest items. Wholesale prices are in the $129-$140 range. Sangam’s 100 percent cotton skirts and pants also perform well: Suzette’s reorders the line twice weekly because it has “a terrific amount of style, tremendous [color] variety, and travels well,” Charlie said. Skirts retail starting at $59.

The rest of their inventory includes Tasha Palizzi outerwear: pullovers, coats and jackets, as well as hand-painted skirts and dresses retailing from $200 to $400. They also carry a line of sweaters called Willow, retailing from $69 to $99, in colorful cottons.

Accessories include Jane Yoo hand-painted leather purses, retailing at around $200 to $300, and Tabra western-style belts, beginning at $69 for the belt, with buckles and decorative silver “concho” additions starting at $125 each.

Suzette’s yearly volume is estimated to be from $300,000 to $500,000.

ANNAWEAR

AnnaWear’s owner Anna Herz starts her day with a black felt-tip marker in hand, drawing whimsical fish, bubbles and plants on the store’s plain white shopping bags. But that’s not where her creative efforts end: About 20 percent of AnnaWear’s sales come from her clothing line, also called AnnaWear. Fun, casual and funky, the collection consists of dresses, skirts and tops made from loose-fitting cotton jersey or linen hand-printed with linoleum-block designs, and trousers made from upholstery fabric. Prices range from $30-$50 for linen tops to $60 for seasonal pants in sizes ranging from 6 to 16. AnnaWear — the store, that is — opened sixteen years ago in a movie theater remodeled to house two separate retail stores, and Anna Wear sits next to “Back of the Bear.”

Although the entryway, complete with retro-looking marquee, is set back from busy Main Street, Herz said, “everyone finds us.” While targeting a younger market that begins with teenagers, with a focus on women in their 20s and 30s, Herz said she never knows who will walk in. The mother of a teenager, she likes to see moms and teen daughters shopping together. In addition to her own line, Herz carries lightweight cotton jersey sweaters by Michael Simon, On Gossamer lingerie and Paul Frank’s print pajamas (the PJs printed with monkey faces are especially popular).

Cotton T-shirts from Itsu in three-quarter or short sleeves with bold, unique prints — such as one with a rodeo rider — sold “like crazy,” Herz said, retailing in the high $20-to-$30 range. Michael Stars T-shirts and Edwin jeans have been big sellers this year.

While T-shirts and jeans appeal to the younger shopper. Gerties silk doupioni tops in brilliant colors “are an easy way to dress up,” said Herz. They range from $70 for an abbreviated, cropped button shirt to $140 for a tunic.

Jewelry and accessories are a growing area, including pewter charm bracelets from the Susan Shaw showroom. Herz monitors accessories closely, actively reordering “if something’s really clicking.”

HIGHLAND HIKER

Located in Highlands since 1983, when owners Carol and David Wilkes purchased the existing Happy Hiker, changing its name a decade later. The Highland Hiker store now serves a second generation of outdoorsy types. “Many of the kids we outfitted for their first hiking boots are bringing their kids in now,” said Carol Wilkes, who moved to Highlands with her husband after vacationing there a few times.

They eventually opened three Highland Hiker stores — the 4,000-square-foot Church Street flagship store near Main Street, a second Highlands store in a rustic — and real — 1929 log cabin and a third in the nearby community of Cashiers. Each location offers men’s, women’s and children’s wear. The biggest growth category is in new quick-dry fabrics, such as Powerdry, undergarments in Capilene and an updated Goretex, called Goretex xcr. Tencel or cotton sweaters and tops from Kavu or Royal Robbins retail from $48 to $60, and easy-to-pack knit travel dresses ($66) from Patagonia’s “Mobilitee” line are carried during spring and summer.

The bulk of Highland Hiker’s customers are dedicated fly fishers, hikers and backpackers. The store also stocks books and maps and operates adventure travel programs, such as local fishing trips, an Alaskan “wilderness safari” and a fishing expedition in southern Chile.

The Highland Hiker sells at manufacturer’s suggested retail price and focuses on a specific number of lines in order to merchandize them properly, Carol said. The store has carried island-influenced lifestyle clothing from Tommy Bahama for six seasons, with chenille or cotton sweaters in natural colors retailing from $50 to 100. Annual revenue for the three Highland Hiker stores combined last year is over $2 million.

THE VILLAGE BOUTIQUE

Bill and Linda Bubenick are the fourth owners of The Village Boutique. Founded in 1962 in nearby Cashiers as an art gallery and boutique, The Village Boutique later moved to Highlands and was purchased by the Bubenicks in 1989.

Believing that clothes should be functional, Linda said that while the store’s original clientele was a “country club” shopper, “everything in the mountains is more casual” these days. They don’t yet have what she calls the “slinky younger customer,” but as Highlands’ reputation grows in Atlanta, Linda said, “she’s coming — Atlanta has had a major impact on Highlands.”

The store’s diverse lines include Flax and Spanner. Jackets represent a significant portion of sales, with four or five suede jackets sold daily in October, Bubenick estimated. She carries a variety of them, by C’est City (part of August Silk), Revue and Irka, all in the $175-$400 retail range. Dressier item jackets in chenille, wool blend or silk blends from Emil Rutenberg, in an updated misses’ fit, retail in the $250-$400 range, and Silverado offers more casual styles of jackets between $220 and $325.

In addition to sportswear, special occasion and accessories are strong categories. A two-piece Rialto by Joy Perreras cocktail outfit in black with feather trim sells for $400. Laminate handbags by Angela Frascone ($110-$180) feature hard geometric angles with bright images of pets or Pop Art flowers.

Shoes are 25 percent of sales, with a shoe department that will soon take up 400 square feet of the total 2,000-square-foot selling space. With over 200 styles, a list of lines is posted over the mirror in the shoe area. Lines include Cole Haan and their biggest seller, Donald Pliner.

The couple also owns a children’s store, “Village Kids,” and a bath and body shop, “Scentsations,” all on Main Street, which both saw double-digit sales increases in 2001. The Village Boutique, however, was down 10 percent.

In leaner economic times, their strategy is to “tighten sell-throughs and pay more attention to what you buy.” The Village Boutique is open all year, though Linda estimates “90 percent of our business is done from April through December.” Repeat customers make up nearly half of sales, and service is key: Delivering a pair of Cole Haan shoes to a customer who needs them that very night and allowing customers to take items home on approval is part of the plan.“2.X>