Trendy women's clothing helps business survive changing times
One of Gresham's oldest independent businesses isn't as fragile as the glass butterfly on the outside of the landmark building on West Powell Boulevard.
For more than 40 years, the Glass Butterfly has been the local source for trendy women's and juniors clothing. Once the only clothing store outside of regional malls, the Glass Butterfly has weathered competition from big-name retailers and evolved with the times to retain customers that now span generations.
'I'm happy that we've survived and our customers have stayed with us all these years,' said Doug Chizum, the store's co-owner. 'We have moms who bought their prom dresses here, and now they're bringing their daughters in to buy a prom dress. We've even had a few mothers-of-the-bride. It's an accomplishment to last this long.'
Longtime Gresham residents Don and Geri VanZyl never imagined their small business plan would become a community anchor when they decided to open a clothing store in the early 1970s. With limited financial resources and during a questionable economic time for small business, they forged ahead remodeling a former auto repair shop and employing some creativity to get their dream off the ground.
Don worked as a salesman for the Lipman Co, traveling the country representing three lines of clothing. At the end of each season, Geri held a sample sale at the couple's home or Don's office to unload the older merchandise.
'Pretty soon, I was doing better than Don,' Geri said, laughing. 'So we decided to go into business, but we started very small. We hired architects to design the store, but a lot of the original furnishings came from our home. Don asked me once where he was going to put his clothes because I took the dresser. I told him, 'I don't know. Apple crates?''
In August 1971, the Glass Butterfly opened its doors to customers, without so much as a name on the front of the building. A sign on the street identified the business as a clothing store, but real signage came much later.
'It took a long time until we could afford to put the awnings up with the store name on them,' Geri said. 'Up until then, all we had was just a sign.'
Geri did the buying for the store, frequently traveling to market for new lines in New York and Los Angeles. In 1975, the couple opened a second location in Hood Center, off Northeast Division Street and Hogan Road. It too, became a mecca for trendy duds.
'At the time, the only place people could shop for clothing was Lloyd Center,' Geri said. 'Both locations just thrived for us.'
The couple raised three daughters in Gresham, all who worked in the store after school. And frequently, with some of their classmates.
'We went through the high school to hire some of our employees,' Geri said. 'They were always juniors, and we worked around their school schedule if they had a test or something. A lot of them would come back and work the Christmas season, and it was wonderful because they didn't have to be taught anything. They knew what to do. They were a wonderful workforce. Many of them have gone on to be very successful too.'
But after 22 years, Geri and Don had grown weary of buying trips, hotel rooms and writing orders on airplanes. The couple was getting itchy to retire, but as Geri said, they began to wonder, 'How do we get out of this?'
Doug Chizum had grown up in the retail clothing industry. His father was president of the Lipman Co. When the company closed in the mid-1980s, the senior Chizum went on to own three children's stores and a women's sportswear boutique in Lake Oswego. Doug knew of the VanZyls and the Glass Butterfly, but a chance phone call in 1992 provided the VanZyls with the opportunity to pass the torch.
'I had been running one of my dad's stores in Lake Oswego and called the VanZyls to see if they wanted to purchase some fixtures we were getting rid of,' Chizum explained. 'They said, 'No, but we were going to contact you to see if you wanted to buy the store.' So my brother, Phillip, and I entered into negotiations with them to buy the Glass Butterfly.'
Doug worked for the VanZyls for a year, accompanying Geri on buying trips and managing the store. In February 1993, Doug and Phillip officially became owners of the Glass Butterfly.
When the senior Chizum retired in 1996, the brothers bought their father's sportswear store in Lake Oswego, reopened it as a Glass Butterfly and included a children's department. But they did little to alter the inventory and selection at the two Gresham Glass Butterfly locations until the early 2000s. Both stores carried essentially the same merchandise, but some sizes were available only in one place. Staff spent a lot of time calling back and forth to help customers find the right size, and eventually the Division and Hogan store became an outlet location.
'Retail became more promotional,' Chizum said. 'There were a lot of outlet stores opening, and it was sort of a big deal. We used the outlet to clear past season merchandise, and so both stores weren't the same (with inventory). Customers were actually buying our merchandise at a sharp discount though.'
As outlet malls began to spring up and other retailers began opening discount stores, Chizum decided to consolidate the Glass Butterfly locations. The time was ripe financially, so the outlet closed and the building was sold in 2005.
But then the economy tanked, taking a toll on numerous small, independent businesses. Chizum admits the past three years have been difficult as consumer spending has gone from discretionary to necessity-only, but the Glass Butterfly has emerged as a survivor in part because of forward thinking and a solid buying reputation.
'It's much harder for a moderate store to compete with the bigger stores,' Chizum said. 'But we're able to negotiate the same prices as the big store on our lines because of our long-term relationships with vendors. And we've changed with the times. We have found lines that other stores don't have, and we're known for our special occasion and prom dresses. Over the last four months, it seems people are coming in and buying again.'
For the VanZyls, entrusting their labor of love to capable hands has allowed them to enjoy their retirement. Geri admits she still routinely scrutinizes junior clothing lines when she shops, but she doesn't miss those days on the road.
'It was a lot of fun and a lot of work,' Geri said. 'But it makes us feel so good. We didn't want to close the doors when we retired, and we were so fortunate to find two wonderful young businessmen to take the business. It was a perfect fit.'
If you go
Who: The Glass Butterfly
Where: 29 W. Powell Blvd., Gresham, 503-667-3600; 140 S.W. A Ave., Lake Oswego, 503-636-9043
What: Special occasion and prom dresses, career separates, swimwear, jewelry and accessories. Children's wear available at Lake Oswego location only.
Hours of operation: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.