Last week I wrote about the inspiring entrepreneurial spirit of Austin, Texas. Small business is a subject near and dear to me. I grew up in a family-owned and operated clothing store named Leonard's in Central New York.
Closing the business after 35 years was like a stake through the heart of my family. When I moved to Austin, I was overwhelmed by the locals' support of mom and pop businesses. Would Leonard's have had the same fate if it resided in Austin instead of the economically depressed Central New York?
I don't think about Leonard's often because the memory of its passing is too painful to dwell on. However, a former employee and friend, Gabrielle, died recently, and it stirred a wave of nostalgia.
I linger on the silkiness of my Grandma’s voice.
The faux aristocrat.
As though every time the phone rings, she’s expecting it to be the President.
I wait a beat.
Trying to make sure that what I’m about to say doesn’t explode out into a puddle of words and tears.
That ain’t gonna happen.
“Mom told me about Gabrielle. I’m so sorry, Grandma.” It all blurts out in one push of air.
My Grandma begins to talk and her voice cracks on the next word and that word only.
That’s all my Grandma will allow herself to cry.
Once. For a millisecond.
She immediately regains her stoicism.
"It wasn’t even the cancer that killed her. She had an infection, Lauren.“
“I know, Mom told me.“
We both are silent. A thousand little images of our past playing like a Lifetime movie montage through our heads.
“Her funeral is on Tuesday. Her daughter is having an open casket. Gabrielle didn’t want an open casket! I always remember her saying in the store, “Nan, when I die, I don’t want an open casket. She cared about her appearance, you know?“
I try to picture Gabrielle lying there, and I realize that my image of her was from 20 years ago. I had never seen the white-haired woman with the oxygen mask and placid skin. Gabrielle will always stay pristinely wrapped in my seven-year-old heart.
I try hard, but honestly can’t remember the last time I saw her.
It may have been the day we closed the store forever.
I get off the phone with my Grandma and can’t move.
They’re all gone, I think. Gabrielle, Monique, Isabel, Mamie. All these women who made up my childhood are dead. All these women who we saw every day and who worked for my Grandma for 35 years are just gone. Disappeared.
And the only people left of Leonard’s are my Grandmother, my Mother and me.
“I came back to Central New York and married your Grandfather,” my Grandma told me one day after prodding about her past. “I was 20, and all my girlfriends were calling me an old maid.”
My grandmother married a dashing WWII soldier and friend of the family’s who was 13 years her senior. Love was never a word mentioned in their relationship, but looking at pictures of them early on painted a different picture.
“So after I married your Grandfather, we moved to Cortland, New York for his work. I hated it there! It was a bunch of country folk who acted like they were too good for everyone. But after I started working at Leonard’s, I got to know people.”
Leonard’s was the only women’s clothing store in Cortland. It was owned by a childless couple called The Leonard’s. All I know about them is that Mr. Leonard was mean and he had one leg.
Leonard’s existed during a time when clothing matter. When well-tailored outfits and accessories meant something. Grandma was their number one salesgirl for 18 years, putting in all the time and energy that her generation was taught to do.
When the Leonard’s were getting ready to retire in the mid-1960s, my Grandmother marched down to the local bank to acquire a loan. The banker looked at her like she was crazy. "I knew he wouldn't give me the loan because I was a woman, so I called up a male friend and he got the loan for me."
In 1965, Leonard’s became my Grandmother’s.
My Grandmother had worldly tastes for being such a small town girl. She loved to dress elegantly. She loved to dance. She loved to meet interesting people. She fancied herself European and so she hired the only two French women in our 19,000 person town. Throw in a cheery seamstress, a mousy bookkeeper and a teenage daughter and you got yourself one heck of a ragtag group of employees.
Here were the players:
Nan: Owner. Professional and classy. Ran her store with an iron fist, but doted on her customers. She came from a time where you put everyone before you. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
Gabrielle: Sales Associate. Sassy, short-haired fire cracker from France. Had a very gravely, fast-tempered French accent and chain-smoked like there was no tomorrow. Was told she had a husband once in France that was killed by the mob. She enabled all of my three year-old whims.
Monique: Sales Associate. Not sassy, but just as French. Also a chain smoker. She was married to Bob and lived on the other side of town. How do I know so little about a women I saw every day of my life?
Isabel: Bookkeeper. Very quiet women who sat alone on the second level loft of Leonard’s. She kept everything documented in hand-written ledgers. I would build cardboard box houses around her desk.
Mamie: Seamstress. Also sassy, but not at all French. She was old school. She kept red, square anise candies in her pocket book and I would always rummage for them. She would let me stick shoulder pads in my shirt and laugh as I paraded around pretending that I had boobies at five.
Brenda: Merchandiser/Daughter of Owner. Would spend hours indulving in her creative spirit by decorating the front window and store. She worked hard and did everything for her mother...and her daughter.
In the 60s and 70s, Leonard’s was known all over New York State. My mother and grandmother would go on buying trips to the City. They loved their job and they were good at it. The sparkling mother-daughter duo with their back-up crew — The Golden Girls.
Then I came into the story. My Dad left and my Mom had no place to put me other than at Leonard’s. I grew up there. Playing dress up, crawling through shipment boxes, talking with customers, reading, writing alone on the back stairs all day, every day. Leonard’s was my safe haven and my sister.
She was the place where my imagination could go wild and my Mom, Grandma, and I could be a family. The store and all the people I met through it made me the person I am today.
For years, my grandmother reserved every drop of blood and sweat for that store. So much so that she exhausted her life savings trying to keep her afloat. With the progression of Walmarts and malls and Old Navys, Leonard’s no longer served a purpose. She was old Main Street. An idea that rarely exists anymore and the only people who could appreciate her were also dying off.
When the store closed in 1998, it was like losing a family member. My mom was so struck with grief, she couldn't be with us the last day as we cleaned out the store. I videotaped that day. I shot every nook and cranny of that store so we would never forget. Funny thing, we've never been able to bring ourselves to watch the tape. At this point it could have completely deteriorated.
You never forget a dream though.
The pain of losing the business should have dissipated by now, but it hasn’t. Not for my Grandmother who owned the store, not for my Mother who spent her entire adult life working in the store — or for me, whose childhood centered around it.
Losing Leonard’s was the first great loss in my life. It had been a part of my life since I was born. Before I was born. It shaped three generations of my family.
Remember this if you ever have trouble deciding to shop locally or not: A small business is not just a business, it is a home as well.