Donavon Boutz gives a behind-the-scenes look at owning gift shop Sweetly Southern at the Chattanooga Choo Choo

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Sweetly Southern gift shop owner Donavon Boutz
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Sweetly Southern gift shop owner Donavon Boutz

"A job to stay in for 50 years has to be fun, and this one is a fun job," says Donavon Boutz, co-owner of gift and novelty shop Sweetly Southern, located in the courtyard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

For Boutz, who is affectionately known as "The Colonel" by both his staff and his customers, being the owner of a shop is fun. Especially this shop.

Sweetly Southern is the largest and oldest gift shop in Chattanooga, he says, open for half a century and known for its wide variety of merchandise.

"We've just become this eclectic store over the years. We have souvenirs for the Choo Choo, ladies' apparel and accoutrements. We [have] books; we have Civil War memorabilia, toys for children and much more," says Boutz. "We have stuff that you might not even be looking for, but once you see it, you have to buy it."

He adds that his customers sometimes come from hours away to buy unique items "that there's not 29 of."

Boutz and his wife, Suzan, also sell their own handmade products at the store. Suzan is a ceramist who makes multi-colored porcelain earrings and necklaces that are sold in-store. Some of Boutz's handblown glass can be found there too — and he even has pieces in the Smithsonian museum.

Boutz enjoys the eclectic aspect of his merchandise, because when it comes to finding items to sell in his shop, he loves the thrill of the hunt. A self-professed "oddball buyer," Boutz likes finding antiques and other random items to put up for sale at Sweetly Southern. Estate sales are one of his favorite hunting venues.

One item that he often scores at these estate sales is anything with a Santa Claus on it. No matter the time of year, these products are always popular with customers, he says.

"We also have best-selling purses that are made out of repurposed military canvas," he adds. "We can never keep stock of them. We often get an order in and sell out that same week."

But these purses aren't his only connection to the military. With a name like The Colonel, it's not surprising that Boutz has spent some time in the Army. He took an ROTC commission in college and ended up fighting in the Vietnam War. After the war, he spent 33 years in the Army Reserves, in and out of active duty, during which he reached the rank of colonel.

As for being a shop owner, he came by that naturally. Raised in a German-American family of farmers and glassblowers, Boutz grew up around the hustle and bustle of owning a business. Throughout high school and during summers in college, he would come home and learn how to blow glass at his father's studio.

Later, Boutz and his first wife decided to open a business selling blown glass in the same building where Sweetly Southern now sits.

"When I first started the business, I think I worked seven days a week for about three years," he says. "I wanted to make sure it didn't fail. Almost all the money that I had went towards getting the business started."

Another part of Sweetly Southern's Southern charm is its history and architecture. Formerly a post office devoted to putting mail on the trains back when the Choo Choo was still a working train station, the building has a long, narrow design reminiscent of a train car itself — which fits the theme of both the store's locale and some of its train-centric merchandise.

In the early days of the store, Boutz's glassblowing business took up a small section of the building, sharing the space with other shops, such as a doll store and a candy shop. But as those shops closed for various reasons, Boutz's landlord asked him to take over the spaces where the other stores once were. That's how he gradually expanded Sweetly Southern to become the long, multi-room setup that it is today. He also began branching out with the type of items that he sold.

As a business owner at one of Chattanooga's most famous locations, Boutz has met many different people. Encountering customers from Germany, Japan, France and many other locations is one of his favorite things about owning a business.

"I like people a lot, and it's enjoyable meeting people from all over the world," Boutz says. "It has been interesting having a store in this period when there's so much migration to Chattanooga."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Sweetly Southern gift shop owner Donavon Boutz

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