By DEBORRAH PORTER
GARDNER - Phyllis Lakin, owner of Lakin's Children's Fine Apparel, is as warm, as welcoming, and as colorful as the store that has occupied the same space at 68 Parker St. for 80 years now. She learned to crawl on the smooth, wood floor and played among the sea of silks, taffetas, linens and wools found therein.
When they married, Phyllis' parents brought two facets of the same world together to create Lakin's Children's Fine Apparel. One of 11 children, Leo owned a men's clothing store in Webster Square in Worcester, and Ida, a brilliant math major at Radcliff College, was a women's wear buyer in Providence, RI. They married in 1935 and soon opened Lakin's, spending their days and nights in harmony for 51 years (until her mother took ill), building the popular business. "They were love birds - soulmates," said Phyllis.
Phyllis took over the store in 2001. "They brought me here from the time I was little. I was given such a legacy of love and kindness," she said.
The eye catching window displays facing Parker Street are a true labor of love. Great care is taken by Phyllis herself, in presenting the finest of what Lakin's has to offer just beyond the heavy, glassed entrance door that jingles with bells each time it is opened. Every piece of clothing, hat and accessory is placed with purpose. The result is alluring. The message is clear; shoppers have found the right place if they are looking for unique and fine quality clothing in a profusion of colors, styles and choices.
"It was important to me to bring in as much personalization as I could," said Phyllis.
She kept the original counter and showcases, although the paint has been updated and colorful, whimsical murals cover the walls."I think it's important to keep the character of the store," she said.
Walking into Lakin's is like stepping back in time - to when excellent customer service was the order of the day. And Phyllis is devoted to providing the same fine shopping experience for customers today as was the norm by her parents.
"I am more amazed than anyone that we are celebrating this 80th anniversary because I had a career in Boston at Harvard Medical School and I assumed when my dad passed away, the store would pass with him.
Her 6' 6" tall father broke his leg when he was 100 years old, and had just been named the Outstanding Older Worker for the state of Massachusetts. Phyllis took a leave of absence to be with him. She had been by her mother's side the last three months of her life after she suffered a stroke, and there was no question she would be there for her father, whom she equally adored. "To be able to give back in that way was the greatest gift I ever had," she said.
"I did not want the store to die before he did. This was his baby - all these memories here. I was going to stay here until the rest of his life and then return to Boston. But destiny got in the way and against my will, I fell passionately in love with doing this," she said. "After he recuperated, I brought him back to the store because this is where I knew he wanted to be. He was at the store until the age 102 and a half and passed two months shy of his 103rd birthday in February 2001. "I told my dad a couple months before he passed away that I would stay and carry on in the spirit of him and my mother; had it been about money, I would have been headed back to Boston. I was blessed to have him for such a long time," said Phyllis.
"They still watch over this store," she added, "there is no doubt in my mind."
Framed family photos hang near the entrance as well as paintings of children wearing Lakin's clothing. All the models in Lakin's print advertisements are actual customers. "The only kind of advertising I do is pictures of our customers wearing what they buy here," said Phyllis. "Our customers are the reason we've been able to stay in business. Every child is special. Anyone who wants us to put their children in an ad, we do that. It sometimes takes a while."
Lakin's now sells clothing to the great-great-grandchildren of their original customers.
Clothing ranges from play wear to communion outfits and fancy formal wear. There is a wide variety of choices, and a wide range of pricing. Also available are gifts, shoes, hats, jewelry, bows, toys and other accessories.
Phyllis said, "My first priority in doing this when I took over the store was I wanted to create the kind of shopping experience that I would enjoy. I want to make it fun, colorful, exciting and wanted there to be such an abundance of choices that if someone had a vision of the kind of outfit they wanted, that the possibility and probability of them finding it here it would be great. The last thing in the world I want is to see a scant selection."
"I want you to feel it, I want you to touch it, I want you to see the true colorations, I want you to try it on. Yes, I do a lot of special orders. Doing this business was very much radar, as a child I received a lot through osmosis being here all the time from dad and mom, who would often say things like, 'we have to make sure the plaids match, we have to make sure the interior stitching is as good as the exterior stitching.' I was brought up by people who were very much into quality."
"I won't carry a dress in any size if the petticoat scratches the skin. It's really irritating to people to have clothes that don't feel good," she said.
Her father's mantra was, "No amount of money will buy you a good reputation, and word of mouth will make you or break you."
"If someone has a great experience they will talk about it, if they have a negative experience, they will talk about it ten times as much," she said. It is important for her to do business the old fashioned way. "Our customers are our friends, they are to be treated in a special way. Kindness is the watch word."