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Published: 11/16/2013 - Updated: 5 months ago

Downtown Toledo shop gives personal touch to generations

Sophia Lustig survives, thrives despite time, technology

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Meredith Sherman, left, bought Sophia Lustig from Paula Fall in 2012. The store has stood at several downtown sites since 1937. Meredith Sherman, left, bought Sophia Lustig from Paula Fall in 2012. The store has stood at several downtown sites since 1937.
THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

In an era of Black Friday specials, 6 a.m. doorbusters, QR codes, and Groupon deals, entering the Sophia Lustig Shop on 10th Street in Toledo is, in a way, like time-traveling back to a period when shopping was a more casual, personal, and rewarding experience.

Once inside, the clues are obvious that things are different. Overhead, a chandelier made a century ago illuminates the entry parlor of the women’s apparel shop. Nearby, a finely crafted vintage etageré neatly holds a small sampling of sportswear.

Go farther, and one finds a light blue round banquette sofa with a glass top — a typical centerpiece that was a staple for any high-fashion salon in times gone by.

But what distinguishes Sophia Lustig Shop from the current era of discounters, brand-specific stores, and Internet sellers is what the customer cannot see.

In here the pace of life slows, the atmosphere is warm and friendly, and the shopper might be drawn into a pleasant conversation about a recent social event, an exciting trip, or a successful family gathering.

“What we do, it is different. We are like a private concierge,” said Sophia Lustig Shop owner Meredith Sherman of Perrysburg. “I don’t know that there is any store like us in the market. That is why we’ve been in business so long.”

More often than not when a customer walks in, the staff will know her name. But beyond that, staff members will know the customer’s buying history, preferred clothing style, size, and favorite colors.

There is also a good chance that many customers of Sophia Lustig have been there long before they were customers — having visited as children shopping with their mother or grandmother.

“We have been at our present location for 30 years. But the store has been around for 76 years,” said Ms. Sherman, who worked at Sophia Lustig for 23 years before becoming its owner a little more than a year ago.

Sophia F. Lustig, a Toledo dowager active in various civic ventures and the arts, opened the shop bearing her name in 1937 on the second floor of the Bell Building at 709 Madison Ave. downtown.

In 1950, she moved her shop to a nearby red brick building at 715 Madison where it remained for 37 years.

When Miss Lustig died in 1972, one of her longtime employees, the late Grace Brandhuber, took over the business and ran it until 1981. She sold the store to Toledoan Paula Fall. When Mrs. Fall’s landlord decided not to renew her lease in 1987, she moved the shop to its current location in the Sam Davis Co. building at 124 10th St.

Mrs. Fall sold the Sophia Lustig shop to Ms. Sherman in October, 2012. She now works for her protegé.

“For the longest time Paula and I had this succession plan out there. We knew it was going to happen, we just didn’t know when,” said Ms. Sherman, who has a marketing degree from Miami University and spent a year with Nordstrom’s in Chicago before returning to Toledo and settling into a career at Sophia Lustig.

Sophia Lustig Shop has outlasted many downtown shops and other venues since it began on Madison Avenue in 1937. It is now located on 10th Street. Sophia Lustig Shop has outlasted many downtown shops and other venues since it began on Madison Avenue in 1937. It is now located on 10th Street.
THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

What also was understood, Ms. Sherman indicated, was that the Sophia Lustig Shop would keep operating in the style and philosophy established by Miss Lustig.

“The legacy, carrying on the torch, I do feel honored. Yet it’s important to me that it continues,” Ms. Sherman said of becoming the fourth owner in the shop’s 76-year history. “I want it to get to 100 [years], but I need to take the right paths along the way to make that happen,” she said.

“It is a daunting task. ... My dream was to have a business, and Sophia Lustig was my passion. But stepping into Paula’s shoes was a huge fear for me, fear that I would crash her empire,” Ms. Sherman admitted.

Eye for fashion

Ann Stranahan, a longtime customer, said there’s little chance of the empire crashing. Ms. Sherman and Mrs. Fall, she said, have maintained the store’s high standards, and the shop’s namesake would be proud.

“I knew Sophie Lustig. She was a real pro,” Mrs. Stranahan said. “She was a fascinating woman. She was tough, she was very much like a New York shop owner or boutique owner in that she absolutely knew her products, knew fashion, knew what was trendy.”

Mrs. Stranahan said she recently bought a gown at the store “and it looks like I bought it from Sophie Lustig herself.” Ms. Sherman and Mrs. Fall “have the same absolutely accurate eye for fashion” that Miss Lustig did, Mrs. Stranahan added.

“They’re wonderful purveyors of fashion. They know their customers, and they’re dead-on with their selections. I trust them. It makes for a very enjoyable shopping experience,” Mrs. Stranahan said.

Susan Palmer, another customer, said what brings her back to the Sophia Lustig Shop is the personal advice and guidance she gets there.

“You can go anywhere to buy your clothes, and these days you can even go online to buy, but what Sophia Lustig ... offers is a complete composition of your wardrobe in that you get an outfit — they will advise you on your hosiery, your jewelry, a handbag you might use,” Mrs. Palmer said.

“They have that there, of course, but they also show you how to change up the outfit, from daytime to evening, or evening to casual. So you’re not buying for just one event, and that’s the thing,” she said. “You just don’t just have a skirt. You have a whole outfit, a jacket and scarf and belt, and you can change it up. And they’re thinking about you, and what works for you,” Mrs. Palmer said. “They give you guidance, and they’re really unique in that aspect.”

Gown etiquette

When the shop opened in 1937, it only sold dresses — high fashion apparel the likes of which one only could find in Chicago or New York, to be worn on special occasions, such as at weddings or soirees. The dresses always were kept out of sight.

When customers arrived, they sat while being shown three or four selections. The process repeated until a suitable gown was chosen.

Mrs. Fall changed the format slightly by adding women’s sportswear to be openly displayed on racks. “We now have sportswear on display, but gowns for social occasions, evening wear, black-tie, or mother-of-the-bride still stay in reserve,” Ms. Sherman said.

There is a practical reason for keeping dresses out of sight. “Since we are a small community, we don’t want overexposure of a gown,” Ms. Sherman said. “A mother of the bride wants to feel special walking down the aisle in a gown no one has seen before,” Ms. Sherman said. “Oh my gosh, if it was on the floor, someone could say, ‘You know what? I saw that at Sophia Lustig two months ago.’ We don’t want that.”

Another faux pas is having two clients at the same event in the same gown. So the store will not carry duplicates of gowns sold for events or social occasions.

“We might special order something, but we will keep track of where it goes,” Ms. Sherman said.

“We’re very happy when one of our dresses goes out of town so we don't have to keep track of it anymore.

“But it is very important. We would never want someone else showing up in the same outfit that someone bought from us and felt that it was special and that it was just for them,” she said.

Personal touch

By and large, that feeling of special-ness is precisely what the Sophia Lustig Shop is selling. And those who shop there pay a premium for that experience.

Women’s sportswear jackets, for example, start at about $200 but can cost up to $1,000. A cocktail dress starts at $200 but can cost up to $2,000.

Customers, however, rarely object because they believe they receive more than clothing: The store functions primarily as a personal shopper, a service that used to be commonplace but now is rare.

In its September issue, Harper’s Bazaar magazine listed the Sophia Lustig shop as one of the 82 best women's specialty shops in the nation. The magazine said it selected the stores based on the variety and quality of their lines and their customer service.

“That is why we’ve been in business for over 75 years,” Ms. Sherman said. “Whether it is someone who doesn’t like to shop, who doesn’t have time to shop, or whether they’ve recognized the service and accept the service we provide, they come back for what we provide,” she said.

When the store buys from wholesalers, purchases are often made with specific store customers in mind. Mrs. Fall calls it “anticipating the customer’s need before they have the need,” a simple retail philosophy that is very old but not often used today.

“That allows us to be different,” Mrs. Fall said. “We stick to the core beliefs and that’s our goal.”

The Sophia Lustig Shop’s business model defies several modern retailing trends.

For example, Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — has no meaning for the Sophia Lustig Shop. The spring — when social events blossom and clients eagerly seek new gowns — is the store’s best sales season.

Also, the store has managed to last seven decades in downtown Toledo, an amazing feat for a nonrestaurant. “We are actually centrally located to our clientele,” Ms. Sherman said. 

“It defies every marketing professor’s ‘Location Location Location’ idea. But we do not stand on those principles. Client customer service is our core.”

One distinct aspect of the store is that many of its customers are generational shoppers.

Ten years ago, Mrs. Fall noticed the store was losing that generational continuity. The reason: as young women came of age they either relished the idea of shopping where their mother or grandmother shopped, or they rejected it entirely.

Mrs. Fall’s solution was to open Sophie’s Sister, at 133 N. Michigan Ave., directly behind Sophia Lustig. Sophie’s Sister carries trendy clothing lines sought by teens and young women. The premise is for shoppers of Sophie's Sister to one day migrate to Sophia Lustig Shop.

“We needed a way to tap into that granddaughter,” Ms. Sherman said. “We needed bigger depth to offer, so we created Sophie’s Sister to be the lead in, but the core principles are the same.”

As the Internet grew, most retailers created Web sites, but the Sophia Lustig Shop didn’t. Ms. Sherman is creating a Web site for the store.

“Someone who spends winters in Florida, they will be able to see what we’ve got, get familiar with it, pick out what they like, and we’ll put it in a box for them,” she said. “We’re trying to create a site that gives you the feel that you have walked through the front door, but on the Internet,” she said

But the Web site will only provide information. It won’t conduct commerce.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the past. That is my passion,” Ms. Sherman said. “The clients that we have here, that is who I want to cater to. I know that the world is going forward in a very fast way and we need to step into that world, but we want to do it without ruining or even offending what we currently have.”

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128



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