You Will Be Enchanted
Right before Easter every year while I was in grade school, my mom and my Aunt Bertie, who raised me, took me to the Hat Box for my Easter bonnet. It was located just across King Street, which Bertie always called Main Street, up two steps, and through a door that led to some of the best looking hats in the country. It was the 1950’s, and hats were still in vogue as etiquette guidelines proclaimed the necessity of a hat to complete a woman’s ensemble. With shorter hairstyles showing up in the 50s, hats became predominantly smaller.
I loved going to the Hat Box. Not only did it mean I was getting a pretty hat to complement my new Easter dress, patent-leather shoes, lacy anklet socks, and short white gloves, it also meant I was going to a fancy store. For my small town, this was about as fancy as it got.
Once I stepped through the doorway of the Hat Box, the delight of something new, something special filled me with lovely anticipation. Suddenly upon entering, there was a pleasing panorama of colors, fabrics, feathers and nylon netting from the pillbox, cloche, flowerpot, lampshade, bucket, and half hats displayed creatively on hat stands.
Deep wooden drawers, painted white, filled the center of the store with a large counter top displaying hats of all colors, shapes, and prices. Additional deep drawers and counter tops lined three walls and provided more space to feature the rich assortment of hats available for sale at the Hat Box.
The wooden floor squeaked with the merry load of women and girls who came to shop for their Easter bonnets. The store was filled with chatter, laughter, and good, old-fashioned joy over the excitement of a new hat.
However, it was the proprietor, Miss Zoe Lesher, who stood out most. There in the 1950’s, with women’s fashions influenced by Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, she looked as if she belonged to a bygone era.
Her brown hair was thick and disheveled, and she painted her cheeks with two round, unblended circles of bright pink rouge. She outlined her lips in a pronounced way and filled them in with a vivid shade of lipstick. She wore wool skirts and blouses with lace trimmings and dressy dresses that were as high in quality as they were matronly. Long strands of pearls hung around her neck. I only visited her store at Easter time, so perhaps it was the larger holiday crowd that always caused her to look so harried.
But, make no mistake, this purveyor of millinery knew how to buy, merchandise, market, and sell hats. She traveled to New York City and Philadelphia to make her selections for the upcoming season, and she marketed regularly in the local paper, The News-Chronicle. One of her ads read: “Remember Mother with a hat for Mother’s Day. We have them in an array that will enchant you. And they are strictly Fifth Avenue. The Hat Box—Lesher Millinery, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.”
As she projected in her newspaper advertisement, Miss Lesher set out to enchant each customer she served in her store. Blessed with a distinguished sense of style, Zoe Lesher imbued each woman with élan and beauty when they wore her stylish and captivating hats.
Homemakers who usually wore comfy house dresses and aprons were ennobled when they accented their best outfits with the soft, gentle elegance of one of Miss Lesher’s hats. Women who worked in local factories doing piecework for cents on the dollar adroitly assumed an air of confidence and femininity when they wore a hat from the Hat Box on Easter morning or Mother’s Day.
Well-to-do women, wearing tailored two-piece suits and high heels, looked even more polished when they accentuated their ritzy outfits with a hat from Miss Lesher’s uptown collection.
Because she hand-selected her merchandise from the most sophisticated millinery markets in the country, she could deftly match a woman to one of her hats.
I watched as she tirelessly assembled promising selections for each woman, pulling open first this drawer, then another, and another. She didn’t stop until the shopper walked out with a bounce in her step and the perfect hat, nestled in a smartly wrapped box.
It wasn’t just the allure of the hats that captured my fancy, it was the inviting way she displayed them—in an attractive high-low technique on delicate perches. Some of her beautiful hats were jauntily tipped to one side, while others were adorned with jewels, feathers and intriguing netting. Her merchandising sense was, indeed, Fifth Avenue.
The store had an ambiance that was part cosmopolitan and part hometown coziness. The counters and drawers gave a snug feeling to the compact space. The fashionable hats, on the other hand, evoked a big city feel. Adding to the appealing effect, the over-sized picture window looked out on a Norman Rockwell Main Street with busy shoppers bustling by and greeting one another with friendly smiles.
Many years later, after I had established my own professional career, I recognized that the enterprising Miss Lesher, with her brightly painted cheeks, was an accomplished role model of the successful entrepreneur. She didn’t look the part, but looks are deceiving. She had gifts beneath the surface.
As the owner of her own business, she let shine her gifts of a servant’s heart, discerning eye for quality, and, above all else, imagination. Utilizing these God-given talents, she created a feeling of specialness for each customer. Her customers not only bought her hats, they bought the enveloping experience she uniquely created for each woman she served.
The Hat Box is closed now, long since sacrificed on the altar of changing fashions, shopping malls, and abandoned downtowns. Only the sweet memory remains of a lovely shop just across Main Street with a proprietor who looked like anything but a savvy business woman.
How often in life do we fail to see the gifts in others? If we look more closely, we might see that, as in Miss Zoe Lesher’s case, looks can be deceiving. We are reminded not to judge a book by its cover, and we are encouraged to look more deeply for the beauty within each human soul.