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The Gift Shop That Became a Hotel

When she was growing up, Shannon Maldonado wanted to be a fashion designer.

After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Ms. Maldonado spent a decade on the design teams for several brands in New York, including Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and American Eagle. But by her early 30s, Ms. Maldonado said, she had become uninspired by her career.

While traveling around the world for work, she liked hunting for unconventional souvenirs in hotel gift shops (her first purchase was a speckled ceramic pen holder in Japan). She started to wonder what it would be like to choose such items for shops at the Ace or Standard hotels.

In 2015, Ms. Maldonado, now 39, recalled thinking, “What if I start a modern gift shop?”

Soon after, she started a website, Yowie, that sold housewares, like ceramic cups and bowls. (When considering names for the website, yowie, an Australian word synonymous with yeti or Bigfoot, emerged as a favorite and stuck.) Ms. Maldonado soon quit her job at American Eagle to focus on the business. She moved to her native Philadelphia, where she hosted a series of Yowie pop-up shops before settling into a tiny store in the Queen Village neighborhood.

Recently, she moved the store again, to a much bigger space on the ground floor of a new Yowie hotel designed and co-owned by Ms. Maldonado. The hotel is set to open this summer in Philadelphia.

“My dream was to be connected to a hotel,” she said. “I didn’t know that would be my hotel.”

The 13-room Yowie hotel, which will also have a cafe, was originally two rowhouses on South Street near the Delaware River that have been combined. On a warm day in February, Ms. Maldonado stood in a sunlit corner room between two bay windows as she scrolled through her design plan for the unfinished space, pointing to where the custom side tables, colorful rugs, and artwork would go.

Ms. Maldonado described her style as minimal but cozy, with an emphasis on color. The hotel’s décor mixes furniture from BluDot, Hay, and other brands with pieces from emerging makers, many of whom are local. It’s a strategy that’s also on display in the Yowie shop, where bold housewares from lines such as Dusen Dusen and Fredericks & Mae sit alongside handmade ceramic bowls and planters.

Naj Austin, who hired Ms. Maldonado to design a co-working space in Brooklyn (now closed), said her aesthetic is approachable and attainable. “It allows the person to want to bring that into their house, and it also feels possible,” said Ms. Austin, the founder of Somewhere Good, a networking website.

At the Yowie hotel, bringing home items chosen by Ms. Maldonado will be possible: If guests are inspired to buy the mug in their room, or the table it rests on, they can buy the items from the Yowie store or directly from a maker through in-room catalogs identifying nearly all of the hotel’s décor, including the fringed Llot Llov light fixtures and the Sherwin Williams “Denim” blue paint in the hallways.

Everett Abitbol, 42, a partner in the hotel, met Ms. Maldonado at a Yowie pop-up shop in 2017. He was passing by and spotted a ceramic Nike sneaker by the artist Brock DeBoer in the window. After buying three, Mr. Abitbol visited the Yowie website.

“What she was showing online just didn’t exist at the time in Philly,” he said.

Mr. Abitbol, a developer, later asked Ms. Maldonado to help decorate a property he had listed on Airbnb. After that, Mr. Abitbol and Bill Vessal, a contractor in Philadelphia, brought her into another project: the renovation of the city’s historic First African Baptist Church into a hotel and event space called the Deacon.

Ms. Maldonado hadn’t designed interiors for a space of that scale. But Mr. Abitbol said he could see that she had a vision for the project.

The Deacon opened in 2019. Ms. Maldonado kept some original details from the old church, including stained-glass windows and Gothic arches, which she trimmed in gold paint. She filled its eight bedrooms with modern furniture, books, and plants, and designed a bathroom using black-and-white basket-weave tile and a halftone-printed wallpaper featuring Julius Erving, the former Philadelphia 76ers player better known as Dr. J.

In late 2020, after Ms. Maldonado, Mr. Vessal, Mr. Abitbol, and his wife, Valerie Abitbol, had begun another project — a boutique hotel in Rhode Island called the Dye House — Mr. Abitbol and Ms. Maldonado were at the Yowie shop discussing what the team might do next. He said the answer was obvious to him: a Yowie hotel.

The Yowie store had by then become something of a destination, after being covered by design websites, national magazines, and local publications including Philadelphia Magazine.

Yowie received more attention in 2020, amid that year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Ms. Maldonado, who is Black, put posters in its window expressing solidarity with protesters and wrote about the experience for House Beautiful. Afterward, the store was featured on lists of Black-owned businesses, and its Instagram followers grew to include celebrities such as the actresses Julianne Moore and Alison Brie.

Olivia Kim, the senior vice president of creative merchandising at Nordstrom, also discovered Yowie through Instagram. After seeing the shop’s posts in her feed, Ms. Kim sent Ms. Maldonado a DM. “I remember I kept hitting refresh, refresh, refresh,” Ms. Kim said of waiting for Ms. Maldonado to reply. She did, and that conversation eventually led to Yowie pop-up shops at Nordstrom stores.

“I felt what Shannon was doing with Yowie was so reminiscent of how it was when we started Opening Ceremony,” Ms. Kim said, referring to the fashion company where she used to work. “It feels inclusive. It feels multifaceted.”

Heather Hanowitz, a vice president and senior loan officer at PIDC, a public-private economic development group in Philadelphia that provided funding for the Yowie hotel, met Ms. Maldonado in 2020. “We loved her story,” Ms. Hanowitz said. “We loved that she was coming back to Philadelphia to reinvest in the community that she has grown up in.”

“My team, when we were introduced to Shannon, really felt like we were working with a local celebrity,” Ms. Hanowitz added.

As word of the Yowie hotel’s location on South Street started to spread, some people were surprised its owners had chosen that area, Mr. Abitbol said. Last June, three people were killed in a mass shooting on the street, where shops and restaurants had already closed because of rising rents and pandemic lockdowns.

But since the 1970s, South Street has been the home to galleries, sneaker and streetwear stores, secondhand shops, restaurants, bars, and many other local businesses. Ms. Maldonado, who grew up nearby, would hang out on the street as a teenager, grabbing cheese fries at Ishkabibble’s, checking out the folk art at Eye’s Gallery, or visiting the punk boutique Zipperhead.

“It really was such a cool, quirky, vibrant corridor when I was a kid, and I loved coming down here,” Ms. Maldonado said, adding that she is proud to bring Yowie to a street with a history of Black-owned businesses. Earlier this year, Ms. Maldonado joined the board of the South Street Headhouse District, a business improvement group, for which she is working on projects to pair entrepreneurs with vacant storefronts in the area and to make South Street more pedestrian friendly.

“Some people see problems,” said Robert Perry, the owner of Tattooed Mom, a popular South Street bar. “She sees potential.”

To transform the rowhouses into the Yowie hotel, Ms. Maldonado had 1970s-era vinyl siding stripped from bay windows and cornices, Victorian details restored, and the exterior painted a steel gray. Light fixtures in the same yellow color as the Yowie logo were installed to brighten up the facade at the suggestion of Mr. Vessal, who is also a partner in the hotel.

The cafe, Wim, is next to the Yowie store; a doorway connects the two spaces so people can go between them without entering the hotel.

The rooms, which start at between $229 and $548 a night, each have different furnishings and distinct personalities: a Yowie take on midcentury modern in one, “Fern Gully”-inspired whimsy in another.

Most rooms have kitchenettes with stone counters, where guests can cook with provided Caraway pots and pans. In the bathrooms, walls are covered with matte pool tiles in shades of pistachio green, dusty purple, cobalt blue, and yellow.

While decorating the hotel, Ms. Maldonado turned to some vendors at the Yowie store, like the ceramic artist Sara Ekua Todd, to create furniture for the first time. Ms. Todd, who specializes in tableware, was commissioned to design a funky lavender clay table for one of the rooms.

In April, ahead of the hotel’s opening, Ms. Maldonado closed the original Yowie store. Its last days were emotional, she said, as customers stopped by to wish her luck with the business’s next chapter.

“This space brought so many great people into my life,” Ms. Maldonado said. “I can’t believe I created this thing, and it means so much to people.”

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