GOOSE CREEK -- Growing up, Maria Ilona "Butchie" Phillips always liked to make things neat and pretty.
When she graduated from Stall High School in 1965, she skipped college and immediately went to work as a secretary.
A few years and a couple of firms later, she decided she wanted to do something on her own that was quick and didn't require a lot of overhead.
The word "wallpaper" inexplicably kept popping into her head.
"I can't explain it," said Phillips, who was first called Butchie as an infant by an aunt. "It's almost spiritual. I had some nudging from above."
In 1977, Phillips struck out on her own after calling a neighbor who was a contractor and asking him if he had any houses that needed wallpaper. He had three, so the next day, Halloween, Phillips, without a clue of what to do, launched a decorating career that spanned 34 years.
In September, the 64-year-old will hang up not wallpaper but her retirement sign. She is moving to Hendersonville, N.C.
Her longtime business, Butchie's By Design, on St. James Avenue isn't closing, but the 24,000-square-foot building is on the market and its furnishings are on sale. Two current employees, floor manager Betty Kaske and framer Joe Rivera, will carry on the business. Once the building sells, they plan to relocate to an undetermined site in Goose Creek.
Remembering back on that first day of hanging wallpaper, Phillips said, "I didn't even have a pair of scissors, but I figured it out very quickly."
For a little over five years, Phillips worked out of her home and grew her business to 16 installers.
Then disaster struck when a fire consumed her Goose Creek home and her business the day after Christmas in 1982.
The fire made her realize that she had nothing tangible to show for all of her hard work, so she opened a retail wallpaper shop in a 400-square-foot building off NAD Road in North Charleston called Custom Wallpapering.
By the end of 1983, she expanded to include another 500-square-foot shop in Goose Creek under the same name.
Her business was doing so well, in 1985 she bought a 3,800-square-foot building on St. James Avenue, not far from her nearby smaller shop, and consolidated operations. She called it Butchie's Paint and Wallcovering.
With Goose Creek growing as Crowfield Plantation expanded and built out, Phillips' business did too, well into the 1990s.
"We were really busy," she recalled.
Her son remarked, "Wouldn't it be nice if everyday could be like Saturday?"
One morning, Phillips saw a "for sale" sign go up on a piece of vacant Berkeley County School District property across the street from her business.
"By the end of the day, we had struck a deal," she said.
In 1999, the former secretary opened a 24,000-square-foot showroom on St. James Avenue that included wallpaper, fabric, furniture, framing, florals, paint and accessories. Her staff grew to 25 employees.
"It was action-packed," Phillips recalled. "It really did well before Enron and 9-11. Then the economy slowly started getting to us with dips and valleys. This has been the longest valley by far."
Phillips now employs four full-time and two part-time workers.
"Over the years, business has just dwindled," she said. "I'm too old to reinvent it."
Phillips said she is not sad to leave her calling.
"It just feels right," she said. "I have a real sense of completion."
Wanting to give back, Phillips hopes to get involved in charity work in a big way in Hendersonville, where she has been for the most part since March. But she also helped out locally too, cooking dinner for a couple of years at Seacoast Church's Dream Center in North Charleston.
"As long as you have the desire, the sky is the limit," she said. "The harder you work, the luckier you get."
Her best advice to would-be entrepreneurs: own your building; it will carry you through retirement.
"If I didn't own the building, I could not afford to stay in business," she said.
As for Kaske, the 12-year employee plans to continue the business.
"Since the third grade, this is what I wanted to do," Kaske said. "I wanted to decorate."
Rivera, who has worked in framing for 20 years and the last four with Phillips, is sad to see her go, but he's grateful for the opportunity to continue the framing side of the business.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "It's slowed down a lot, but we do what it takes to keep the doors open."