For more than two decades, the Chameleon Boutique has been one of Bradenton’s best-kept secrets — and amazingly, it’s hidden right in plain view.
The boutique is remarkable for its eclectic style and commitment to quality. Artsy, chic and all natural items from jewelry and beads to home décor, clothing and body care products, fill the homey bungalow-style cottage in which the business resides.
The Chameleon’s humble beginnings date back to 1990 when store owner, Elizabeth Western, moved from her home in Michigan to Anna Maria Island and opened a jewelry booth at the Red Barn Flea Market.
“I started getting regular customers who were telling me, ‘Please stay in Bradenton. There’s no other place like this in town,’” Western recalled. “I started very small, but my customers immediately embraced the business.”
Encouraged by the positive feedback she received selling her jewelry at the flea market, Western opened the first Chameleon storefront in a strip mall space at Eckerd Plaza (near St. Stephen’s Episcopal School) in 1991 “to test the waters.”
Western later opened a second small location in downtown Sarasota’s Burns Square arts district, but ultimately decided to sell that store so that she could focus on growing her business in Bradenton. After one more location change on Manatee Avenue near 59th Street, The Chameleon finally settled into its current location at 2801 Manatee Ave.
“My customers have followed me to three different locations on Manatee Avenue. They saw my kids grow up; they were there when I was widowed and re-married — they’ve been through it all. My roots are here in Bradenton and I could never leave that,” Western said.
Western hand picks every item she carries in the store, most of which come from small companies with grassroots values.
“I am so proud of the companies I represent. I go to big shows in New York every year so that I can bring new things into the store, and I focus on bringing back smaller, family-owned, fair trade companies — often those run by women — that give something back through their business,” Western said.
She also makes a point to carry companies that produce organic, all-natural products — such as Under the Nile, a 100% Egyptian cotton infant apparel and diaper store that also makes organic bath goods, toys and accessories.
“Quality is very important, and just because something says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good quality," Western said. "I’m really particular about what goes on my body, so I’m just as careful about what I’m selling to my customers.”
“I have people come in and tell me ‘I bought a dress from you ten years ago and people still compliment me on it today.’ I love hearing things like that,” she added.
The Chameleon also stocks a selection of work from as many as a dozen local artists at any given time, including Western’s own jewelry.
Notably, The Chameleon Boutique has hosted a monthly “Bead Therapy Night” every month since the store moved into its current location in 2004. Bead Therapy Night is usually a free, open forum craft night for bead enthusiasts, although professional artists occasionally attend to lead classes in bead art for a small fee.
“We do different projects every month — sometimes it’s an open forum to work on whatever project you’d like, and sometimes it’s a special themed class, Western said. "I serve wine and hors d’oeuvres. It’s a nice place for friends to gather and catch up while they make something.”
“It’s become a regular social occasion for a lot of us. Some of the women have been coming here every month for nearly 9 years,” she added.
Western, who seems to be constantly working on a piece of jewelry while she watches over her store — she likes to keep her hands busy — said the bead room is the most popular part of the boutique.
“People like to come in and choose beads, either to make their own jewelry or I’ll make it for them. I’m like the MacGyver of jewelry making. As long as you know what you like, I can do the mechanical part,” she said. “I get to do a lot of really wonderful custom orders. I’m doing an order for one of my regular’s daughter’s bridal party. I’ve known her since she was in elementary school, so that’s really special to me"
Western also has women come in to get their jewelry modified to their daughters’ and granddaughters’ tastes so they can pass it down to them.
The Chameleon is open six days a week, from from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. To learn more about the boutique or to find out when the next Bead Therapy Night takes place, call the store at 941-747-4477.