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The ladies of Lee's Clothing look back on 45 years


Submitted Photo

New store owner Roxy Lee shows off some merchandise during Lee's first year in business in 1969. Roxy and other women business owners comprised only about 5 percent of all small businesses owned in the U.S. at the time.

Lee's Clothing has had a main street presence for decades. In fact, owner Roxy Lee and her daughters and store managers Cynthia Lee Mathisen and Heidi Lee are celebrating 45 years of business this month.

In the early days Lee's was a working man's store. Roxy outfitted loggers and fishermen and the high-school-aged boys in town. Lee's has since grown into a main street staple outfitting for fashion and function. The story of the store and the Lee's family who run it parallels the story of the changing role of gender in business and the changes in technology over the past 45 years.

A store of her own

Roxy long knew she would open a store of her own. Two members of her family, her grandfather and aunt, owned stores and Roxy's involvement with them both equipped her for and inspired her to start her own venture.

The time she spent as a youngster in her grandfather's grocery store managing the suckers display and helping with the finances was a formative experience for her.

"I started adding on an adding machine when I was sitting in my grandfather's lap. He would let me add up the store receipts," she said.

She'd also helped out a summer at her aunt's store here in Petersburg, the Lillian Shop, which she liked so well she decided to defer her enrollment to the University of Minnesota in order to stay another year and help out at the shop.

She eventually did return to university, studying retail merchandising and working her way up to a junior buyer position at a store in downtown Minneapolis.

But it wasn't until years after she moved back to Petersburg that her dream to own a store came to fruition.

She returned to Petersburg in 1951 and later married and had three children, David, Heidi and Cynthia.

As her kids were growing up, Roxy worked out of her home writing orders for a traveling salesman. Some words of advice from a friend reminded her of her original goal - to own her own store.

"A friend of mine said, 'If you don't start your own business by the time you're 40, you're always going to be working for somebody else.' That's what really urged me on then," she said.

Women and business 45 years ago

Desire alone wasn't enough to make her dream a reality. She needed to get a loan to start the company, and as a female she wasn't able to do so on her own accord in 1969, when she applied.

Discrimination on the basis of gender, and other factors, was routine in denying credit until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, which made it illegal for creditors to discriminate on the basis of sex or marital status as well as race, color, religion or age.

"I couldn't have gotten the loan if I hadn't been married... And it isn't that my husband was against it, but we had to mortgage the house in order to get the loan so that was a big deal too," she said.

"It was quite a process for her to get her Small Business Administration loan and we kept waiting to hear the good news that she got it," Heidi said.

After securing a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) Roxy became a business owner, opening Lee's Clothing on main street in 1969.

Joining the ranks of small business owners was no small feat. The SBA did a study that revealed that in 1974, five years after Roxy opened Lee's, women owned just 5 percent of all small businesses in America.

That number looks more like 30 percent today, though there is still gender disparity with business ownership and access to funding to start and expand small businesses. According to an article in Crain's Chicago, which specializes in business news, women today receive only 17 percent of small business loans backed by the SBA.

With funding in hand and merchandise arriving, Roxy embarked on the venture of business ownership where she found that gender continued to factor into her experiences.

"A woman starting a men's clothing business was a big deal," Roxy said.

"It took years for her to prove herself in pretty much a men's industry," Cynthia added.

These kinds of interactions with men in the business didn't bother Roxy. She even approached them with a good sense of humor, carrying a red, white and blue striped briefcase to distinguish hers from others at industry events.

"I got this (briefcase) when I first went into business because I knew that a man would never pick up that briefcase. There were very, very few women buyers of men's wear," she said.

She wasn't without challenges though, as one thing did nag at her in the early days of opening the shop with three school-aged kids.

"I really had a guilty feeling about having a business downtown and not being able to go to everything that the kids did in school," Roxy said.

As she worked to get to more of the kids' events, the store also became a hub for the family.

Cynthia began work there as early as age ten. "I started cleaning when I was ten and then I started working weekends when I was 12. I worked on Saturdays," Cynthia said.

Both Cynthia and Heidi fondly recounted memories of merchandise arriving at their home and the involvement they had in pricing things in their basement.

"We started getting all these socks and underwear and pants and everything in our basement...I remember going down at night time and putting stickers on things. It was kind of fun. It was like we had our own store in our basement," Heidi said.

Lee's becomes a main street staple

What began as a working men's clothing store-outfitting loggers and fishermen primarily-has since expanded and diversified, changed locations and becoming a community hub.

The ladies of Lee's and their employees have the unique opportunity to watch and help people grow through the years, literally and figuratively. Through the lens of clothing and shoe sizes, Cynthia said, they've built lasting relationships with their customers.

"It seems like we would know their sizes and know their kids and we still do. We just see them through everything, through their changes..." Cynthia said.

This aspect of the store has a history dating back to the days when teens would come in to receive counsel from Roxy in her office.

"A lot of the times, the teenagers knew they could come sit in mom's office...and she'd counsel quite a few people, kids that were going through transition, families that had losses, sometimes they just sat in her office and tell her what was going on and it's still kind of like that at our store," Heidi said.

These relationships with community members has contributed to Lee's endurance and success in a time when technology now allows any shopper with internet access to purchase any garment with the click of a button.

"It's a whole different way of shopping now because we're used to them (customers) taking a picture of the item and then checking on their phones to see if they can get it better somewhere else and then coming back and saying 'I think I'll get it.' Ya know, that's just all part of shopping nowadays," Heidi said.

In 2013, in the U.S. alone e-retail sales reached $263 billion, or about 8 percent of total retail sales, according to a report by Forrester Research Inc., an independent research and consulting firm.

The proportion of retail sales made online is projected to increase in coming years, but brick-and-mortar stores like Lee's are meeting the challenge of online competition by offering an in-store experience that online retailers can't match.

"We try to have the best customer service possible," Cynthia said. "We are so thankful that we have the community support that we have because we really, really do. And we've had that through all the years, but it's challenging."

In-person shopping also has a leg up over its online counterpart as customers can try on clothes and shoes to ensure a proper fit and avoid the bane of online shoppers-shipping costs.

Heidi Lee said that the tactile experience of shopping in-store provides its own comfort.

"I think to have-what are they called-a brick-and-mortar store, which means you can come in and touch the stuff and feel it, ya know, that provides its own therapy in a dark time," she said.

Shopping isn't the only aspect of the business that's changed over time. Buying merchandise for the store has also been impacted by these changes.

Whereas now each retailer in town has access to a seemingly boundless number of brands and styles, when the shop first opened, Roxy struggled to get unique items from traveling salesmen who stopped in Petersburg.

Submitted Photo

(From left) Cynthia Lee Mathisen, Harold Lee and Heidi Lee pose in front of merchandise at their new store location in 1989. Lee's has been a main street staple since their opening in 1969. Their first location was in the building that now houses the Petersburg Pilot.

Roxy recounted: "In the beginning they would stay a whole week in the town, these fellas would-and fellas, no women-they would sell everybody in town everything they could. So we were also fighting that. The Trading Union would have something and Hammer's would have something and Fashion Faire would have the same thing. So I was forever writing letters saying 'could we have an exclusive on just the men's things?'"

Nowadays the issue isn't so much trying to get unique merchandise but choosing from the increasing options available as new technologies lead to new lines of gear and clothing.

"Our product mix has evolved through the years, too, with just so many more technical outdoor products, ya know, where before things were pretty basic, wool and cotton and polyester," Cynthia said.

The ladies of Lee's will celebrate their 45th anniversary this weekend with door prizes and drawings. The Lee family - Roxy, David, Heidi, Cynthia - will all be on site Friday from 3-5 p.m. for an open house and the celebration will continue on Saturday.


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