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Long Time Gone: The Lassie, on Main Street

By C.J. King

2022-02-16 07:00:02

While on the train, Beverly must have imagined trees and mountains. She was headed toward the lush vegetation and clean air of Colorado with its mountain run-off lakes, rolling hills, and high peaks scratching at the sky. It wouldn’t be much different from Michigan. It wasn’t meant to be a monumental change. But even if the land was not a complete twin to Michigan, Beverly had dealt with much more drastic environments in her past. She had been to Chicago, taking the rail cars at night. She rode down the windy city streets, watching the metropolis masses roam, wondering where they would go. Could there possibly be enough homes in all the city to house so many people? Now she was freshly graduated from Northwestern with a degree as a dietician. Ready to work. Ready to start her life. The train rolled on, further from home and closer to Colorado.

The country had been at war for three years and was still at war. Those not overseas fighting in the Pacific or European theatre were given the duty to fill the gap in the American workforce. Suddenly, there was an opportunity for women to become the backbone of the country’s economy. Job positions and a wide open plain of perspective careers waited in Colorado. Beverly would work for a hotel, managing the restaurant, cafe and bar. Maybe she would one day manage her own hotel. Maybe she would stay for a short time, look around, and go elsewhere with a thicker resume.

The train arrives at Blackwell Station, and Beverly Nelson takes her first steps in Lamar Colorado. Where were the snowcapped mountains? Where were the green hills and crystal lakes? The ground seemed to stretch on forever, flat, dry, and windswept. She had arrived in a place decidedly NOT Michigan. It wasn’t even the Colorado of her imagination.

“This was my choice, so I had to see it through.” she later relates.

Beverly walks two blocks to a hotel with documents in hand. The hotel is a three-story building at the corner of Main and Olive. Emerald brick wrapped around its base, dust colored brick stacked to the roof. A ruby marquee shines bright with yellow letters tipped vertically spelling- Maxwell House. She has come to this place to work, wander into adulthood, and fulfill the obligation she has set for herself. She says as much to the desk clerk. Was Mr. Maxwell available? When could she begin?

“Well,” the desk clerk tells Beverly, “If you want to see Mr. Maxwell, you’d better hurry to the Methodist Church because they’re having his funeral.”

Far from home and fresh in a new country, Beverly has hardly fallen in love with the place. ‘Holy Moses,’ she thinks to herself, ‘I hope I don’t have to stay here long.’ That was 1944.

Seventy-seven years later, ivy crawls up the brick of The Lassie’s back alley entrance. There is a white door with a slate black sign hanging at the center. On the sign, in tight cursive, are the words: ‘Back Door Guests are the Best.’ Through the door is a colorfully cluttered stock room. Orange, purples, bright greens, seafoam, magenta, and turquoise. A turquoise trail flows from the back room and dressing rooms with their fancy, round chairs past an elevated office with a window facing the sales floor. Midnight blues, teal, deep reds. Evidence of American culture’s peak for women’s fashion is elegantly placed throughout the show room. The closets and fixtures are arranged like patterns on a silk dress, flowing and bending with an aesthetic. Beverly Augustine is at work, scanning through merchandise with a customer in mind. She looks for the right color and perfect cut.

“But it all worked out.” Beverly tells me. Her eyes gently scan the store. She looks at its fixtures and cornices. She gazes at the hat bar.

She lived at the Maxwell House while working there as a manager. The hotel was a buzzing hive of activity at the center of a bustling town. Salesmen stopped in Lamar while on route, renting a room on a weeknight before moving on to some other part of the world. On the weekends, military men fought over vacancies. They had come from the prohibition state of Kansas, looking for fun and a drop of alcohol. They found both at the Maxwell House in Lamar. They were booked every weekend.

“This little town was booming back then. We had three drug stores with soda fountains. It was just so different from what we have now, but it was a booming sort of town...Anything you wanted was here.” But she didn’t want to stay. Not yet.

Beyond the black and white photograph depiction of Lamar in the late 40s is the technicolor fingerprint of its past. It was an All-American town. At night, the streets glowed neon and phosphorescent against the setting western sun. Ranchers, farmers, and cowboys stopped in and headed out to establish sales barns and ply their trade. There was the hum of movement from a born-again America, coming back from years at war and rationing. But it was Clifton Augustine, a man coming from Iowa and looking to buy cattle, who convinced Beverly to stick around.

“Before I got around to moving, and not staying here, this guy came into the hotel about every two, three weeks, with a big white Stetson hat and told me I’d really like it out here…” She says this with romantic inflection, a dimple peaking at the corner of her lip before breaking into a smile. She teased the story, perhaps deciding to keep the details only for herself. She came to Lamar as Beverly Nelson. She would stay as Beverly Augustine.

Something else happened which convinced Beverly to stay. Neva Cox would often spend her lunch hour at the Maxwell House. She had been working retail at Eudora’s Style Shoppe, a well-known dress shop in Lamar and had ambitions to open her own business. Neva needed a partner to launch the new business. Beverly didn’t know much about fashion and running a business, but Neva did and Beverly liked the idea immensely.

An advertisement was sent out with the paper announcing the opening of a new women’s dress shop on Main Street in Lamar. The location was perfect. Across the street from the theatre and next to Walgreens, a popular lunch spot. The building space had been refinished and suited to sell clothing. The fixtures and cornices had come from Chicago, brought down and installed by Clifton. The store would open in September of 1948, fully equipped with the latest in women’s fashion and presented by proud partners Neva Cox and Beverly Nelson. “When we got ready to open and put the neon sign up, we didn’t have enough money to add the words ‘shop’, or ‘boutique’, so we had to have the sign say how much money we had.” They named the shop, The Lassie.

“I didn’t know anything about this kind of business at all, but Neva Cox was a wonderful teacher. We made the markets together. I learned a lot from her, but she became very ill and died about six or seven years after we opened. So I had to decide. Was I going to keep the store or not? My husband told me, ‘That’s something you like, and that’s something you can do.’ Been here ever since.” Beverly says.

She is sitting in a turquoise, cushioned chair. Her hands are folded in her lap, resting gently on her skirt–an elegantly stitched brown piece of apparel met with a matching jacket. Her chair matches the color of the carpeted floor in a neat corner of the show room. “The reason I chose this color, and we’ve had the carpet for a long time, is because everything blends with it.” Her words provoke metaphor, whether Beverly is aware or not. From her seat, she calls to a browsing customer, “How ya doin’, honey?” She’s taking in the turquoise aura, blending with the town and its people, their lives. This is her trade. A lifetime of listening, accommodating, stitching together a world of conversations, community, and devotion. This seems to be her primary concern. “I always wanted my office so I could see what was going on on the floor. It’s been elevated all this time so I can sit at my desk and see who’s out there, and what’s going on, and then I usually come down and get in the puddle.” In The Lassie, selling clothing was an avenue for developing relationships.

It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary retail store demonstrating the same level of devotion when it comes to the community it serves. But The Lassie’s success is not contingent on sales or quarterly numbers. There is, instead, an ideal which was once promoted as a way of life. Good business is not solely concerned with the market economy; rather, a good business thrives when it invests in the human economy. It is ‘good business’ to love thy neighbor. This seems to come naturally for Beverly Augustine. It certainly made running a business more fun…

Consider Christmas. Images of the holiday season, mid twentieth century, are now propped up as pure americana. Deep red, tinsel, and golden bulbs hang from garland decorated streetlamps. Norman Rockwell’s Santa sits in red underwear, checking lists twice. Bing Crosby sings ‘White Christmas.’ Judy Garland sings ‘Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore…’ Men, women, and children hang around Macy’s department store windows, daring to dream of the perfect gift to put under the store bought, silver Christmas tree.

Meanwhile, in Lamar, Colorado, something was going on at The Lassie. The red decorated windows were papered, adding a whisper of secrecy to an event that was becoming a holiday tradition. Men had gathered in a women’s clothing store for a good time. A bar had been set up at the back of the store. There was music, revelry, and classic holiday cheer. Beverly Augustine stood in the thick of it, acting as secret advisor. Luckily, she knew exactly what each of the men’s wives wanted for Christmas. She would only point in the right direction and a once confounded husband could rightly claim he had found the perfect gift for his spouse.

“It was just fun.” Beverly remembers. “At ten o’clock, when the shopping was done, the whole crew would go for steaks.” It was Christmastime in Lamar and the satisfied customers would pour on to Main Street, proud of their purchases, and looking for steak dinners. It wasn’t Macy’s with the decorated windows or Madison Avenue or Rockefeller Center. What was happening was something that would wash not fringe or fray or rust. The image, the memory, is priceless.

After seeing four generations move in and out of her store, Beverly’s career is decorated with moments involving the lives of other people. Memories of fashion shows and picking out dresses for the girls in senior high school. Formal bouffant dresses with petticoats underneath. She can still see them twirling around in front of the mirror. She’s seen boys clutch at their mother’s ankles, grow up to become men, marry, and return to the store looking for gifts to give their wives. She’s seen girls grow up to become women with a character that matched Beverly’s own generation. This was her choice, and she would see it through.

“I’ve seen them graduate from high school, go away to college, and come home and get married… We have customers we’ve helped through thick and thin. Somebody will come in and tell me ‘I need something for my mom because we have to bury her on Friday’, and I know what ‘mom’ would have wanted to wear. I’ve seen the whole cycle of things with people.”

We inherit images, and glue them together in a nostalgic collage that tells us a story we understand. We shop online for items we think will define us. We look at screens, scroll through the images, and click ‘purchase’, never knowing where an item of clothing or keepsake came from. We choose drive-through windows, and self-checkout for a quick purchase, believing that our time is money. That fabric tatters. The metal rusts. All the while, Beverly Augustine is going to work, keeping her customers, her neighbors, her friends in mind.

When The Lassie first opened, Beverly followed her own tastes when going to market. She bought all beige, brown, or earth tones. But soon, she learned to broaden her color palette. People would come into the shop looking for blues, purple, red, and turquoise. Women walked through the doors looking for class and elegance, emulating the style of Jackie Kennedy, shift dresses, sheath dresses, and that American-made couture look. So, Beverly went to market remembering faces, names, and requests. She knew who preferred muted tones or loud colors. She hunted for lavender, navy, or scarlet fabrics, imagining a customer wearing a new piece out of the store. “Wear it to church so everyone can see,” Beverly would say. After some time, customers would walk through The Lassie’s doors looking only to visit or looking for someone who would listen. Beverly would be there to listen. She made it her business to care. Business at The Lassie has not changed, and Beverly still has work to do.

“You know, if I need to order something- that’s a big thing on my list until I get it done. So, until it’s done, I’m dedicated to it.” Beverly is currently dedicated to finding the right dress for a home-bound customer who no longer drives. If the customer’s daughter is unable to pick up the two or three selected dresses, Beverly will bring the selections herself. “She’s got to have something for the party.” she says. A turquoise hue blends with any color, tone, or temperature. Maybe Beverly pictures the home-bound woman, sees her twirl in front of the mirror, and remembers how the perfect dress could tell a story. She was never meant to stay here long. Beverly Augustine is still at work, remembering, keeping track of the store merchandise, keeping a history of her town, her place. She keeps a memory of her family and people. She tends the shop, looking forward to seeing you again, or for the first time.