Letters from Katie: Retail Restoration

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I used to follow my sister obediently through the mall in the small Alabama town where she lived. She whipped in and out of Williams-Sonoma like Martha Stewart seeking the perfect pie plate, all the while admonishing me not to tell our mother that she bought a commercial gravy base. “She thinks I make it myself,” she confided.

I loved those days of shopping with my sister, but my life is more circumscribed now. Large shopping malls don’t hold the charm they used to, and I find myself seeking out small stores, places with the personal touch, when I feel the need for retail therapy. I want someone to offer me a place to sit down when I have walked too far in search of merchandise. I still enjoy the hunt, but I haven’t the energy I once had in those days when my temperature seemed to climb a little higher, my heart beat a little faster, contemplating the swipe of a charge card, the promise of just the perfect rug, the most graceful blouse, even the ideal gravy base. I still like the thrill of the hunt, but I’m not willing to walk as far to get it!

These days, it seems to me that Greta Martinez operates just the right size place: the Hansa Guild Co. It’s a small store piled high with goods on Ludlow Avenue in the gaslight section of Clifton. “How lovely to see you, Katie,” she’ll say when I come in, the bell on the door jingling behind me. Scanning the straw hats, the sheepskin rugs, the displays of alpaca mittens and colorful Guatemalan goods, I’ll see something—maybe a scarf or a small painted wooden box or a long strand of turquoise beads. “Aha,” I think, and the chase is on.

My friend Leona and I started going to Hansa regularly a couple of years ago when Keller’s IGA closed and we had to walk all the way to CVS Pharmacy to get a loaf of bread. We grumbled a lot about having to buy bread at a drug store, but it turned out the Hansa Guild was right next door to CVS—close enough to justify a visit whenever we were in the neighborhood.

The shop, which Greta opened in 1980, specializes in natural fibers and carries the work of artisans from around the world. She also sells Minnetonka Moccasins—the kind that people went crazy for in the 1960s. And somehow all of her stock—the moccasins, the gauze skirts, the sheepskin rugs, the straw hats—seems to belong together. “Now and then, something may slip through,” Greta once commented to me about her merchandise, “but I like to think it is always something of great charm.”

Last spring, when Leona’s niece visited, we took her to see Greta on a perfect day for shopping: a trifle overcast, a little chilly. We turned Alaine over to Greta, who had her try on two sheath dresses that hugged her tiny figure like a glove.

The first one wouldn’t do, though. “No,” Greta said, frowning and shaking her head slightly. “It washes you out, I think.” And sure enough it did. I wouldn’t have noticed, but as soon as Greta said something about it, the color or lack of it was all I could see.

Alaine settled on the more flattering dress, then we all turned our attention to hats, twittering like little birds as we examined the tightly woven raffia in the swooping brims of the panama hats, the high crowns of the fedoras.

“The term ‘Panama hats’ is actually a misnomer,” Greta told us. “The hats are actually woven in Ecuador from the toquilla fiber, the finest of straw fibers.” The reason they’re called Panama, she explained in our impromptu fashion history lesson, is because so many gold prospectors who came through the Panama Canal in the mid-1880s wore them. “The best hats are woven in Madagascar,” she said, “But they cost over $1,000 in some cases, not really in our price range.” Her hat clientele consists mainly of jazz musicians and ministers, she explained, laughing. “I don’t think that would be in their budget.”

 

With our purchases wrapped, we strolled across the street to d. Raphael’s, a place I always think of as Ali Baba’s cave. It’s almost never open, but when you are finally admitted, baubles seem to pour from everywhere: an antique silver and coral necklace, lovely Baltic amber beads, turquoise and silver bracelets. Leona found an opal that seemed to have been formed from pure light and a pair of earrings that were striking against her long, slender neck. I needed to get the clasp on a bracelet fixed, but they couldn’t do the job at d. Raphael’s. “You need to go to Hug Jewelers in Wyoming,” the man behind the counter said.

“Surely there’s some place closer,” I said.

“Yes,” he said with evident disdain. “You could get it done somewhere closer, but another jeweler would only fix it. Hug’s has…soul.”

So that afternoon we made our way up Vine Street to Hug’s, where—given its advance publicity—we were expecting a doorman guarding an establishment like something out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hug Jewelers was a much more modest affair. The linen wallpaper was from the 1950s, and dishes of broken jewelry were everywhere. Still, there was a cheerful air about the place. Clerks smiled and said hello with a kind of proprietary pride. The gemologist, who looked a little like the mad scientist in Back to the Future, had a band around his forehead with two or three loupes on it. Leona considers herself an amateur gemologist (she watches “Jewelry TV”—that network where they’re always showing something unbelievably priceless). So while the jeweler installed a catch on my bracelet, Leona and the gemologist began talking serious black spinel. He showed her a rare Mexican fire opal and some pricey aquamarine; she impressed him with her new peridot ring.

I wondered how many youngsters had come here for their senior class rings, then returned for engagement rings and wedding bands, then anniversary pearls, then charm bracelets with tokens of their grandchildren dangling from them. I realized it was true: The shop had soul.

“Wow,” I mused. “How long has this place been here?”

“It was opened at its original location in the early 1900s,” the gemologist said, “but it’s been here since 1951.”

It was obviously not Tiffany’s, and while I love Tiffany’s (who doesn’t?) I doubt they’d let me try on their estate jewelry.

 

It had been a golden day for shopping and we hated for it to end, so we pointed the car toward Kentucky and Julie’s Inspiration Consignment Shoppe on MainStrasse in Covington. Julie’s has always been one of our favorite consignment shops, just chock-a-block with clothes, consigned accessories, and furniture. A section of large-sized clothing hangs over the shoes next to high fashion duds for sale at excellent prices. I love the rack of blue jeans, frayed around the snaps at the waist and around the hems. “Who wore these?” I always ponder, because a pair of jeans, more than any other garment, retains the shape of its former owner.

I feel a sense of reverence in a consignment shop. Lives have been lived in these clothes, and for some reason they were tossed aside, in most cases as good as new. Julie’s Inspiration has particularly colorful costume jewelry, and they understand that you might be low on funds so they let you put it on layaway. And there’s Wacky Wednesday, when all of the on-sale merchandise is marked down an extra 20 percent. Customers bring big bags to haul away their loot and the clerks laugh and write up tickets as fast as they can.

Recently I watched a television show called American Pickers. I tuned in thinking it would feature bluegrass musicians. Instead, it turned out to be a program about the ultimate flea market/consignment shop customers—two guys who feel drawn to old warehouses and antique barns, and who come out with beat-up signs, motorcycle parts, and other things I’d never dream of buying, but which they considered real treasures. And that’s what shopping is about, isn’t it? Finding things—new or old—that speak to you, and finding these things in a setting where you feel like you belong. A store either has warmth and personal appeal or it doesn’t; and if it doesn’t you end up not going there again, and not knowing why.

When my sister was dying, I went to CVS to get a prescription refilled, and suddenly, I found myself slipping into the Hansa Guild.

Greta took one look at my white face, at the shock registered in my eyes, and told me to sit down.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“I have to fly to Alabama,” I said, explaining the circumstances.

“Then you’ll need a pair of loafers you can slip off and on when you go through airport security.” The shoes were a little big, but Greta cut two small pieces of alpaca wool and stuffed it in the toes. “Alpaca can be magic,” she said.

She was right. The alpaca gradually shaped itself to my foot. And over time, my grief has changed shape, too. Like the alpaca, I can still feel that it’s there, but I have slowly come to be more at home with both.

 

Originally published in the August 2013 issue.

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