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My first customer was an elephant.

My first customer the elephant; my mom, sister Nancy and me with my dad in shadow, Nutley, NJ 1950

Well, okay, just a toy elephant, eight inches head to tail. But nevertheless an elegant elephant of black velvet, with cream leather tusks and a red and gold silk damask with gold fringe. He was a visitor from abroad, courtesy of my dad’s elderly aunt in England. He sat on the counter of my fantasy play store, in our garage on Rhoda Avenue in Nutley, New Jersey.

Elephant, from his seat on the counter, admired the well-organized displays of the many wares I had imported from the nooks, crannies, cabinets, and closets of our house. Pink pop-it beads and assorted old costume jewelry. Brightly colored marbles and empty cans of Campbell’s soup. Cartons of cereal and jigsaw puzzles. Comic books and coloring books. And one-of-a kind specials: last year’s straw Easter hat, my mother’s discarded white patent leather purse, a musical top, a collection of my father’s big ties, and a souvenir replica of the Empire State Building.

He was just browsing, Elephant said. But then, with my sage guidance, he made a purchase, and I carefully deposited his imaginary dollar in the shiny red cash register that sat prominently on the colorful counter.

My favorite and coveted possession…..I never thought it was a toy.

Oh, the hours of fun playing store with Elephant and all my doll and stuffed animal customers! How seriously I worked to assemble the cardboard boxes gathered from the neighborhood and the wooden soda crates my dad hauled back from the Brookdale Beverage store.

Bedecked with colorful old curtains and tablecloths, the mélange of crates and boxes was transformed into a jewel of a play store. Over and over, I would arrange and rearrange my sundry “merchandise” to highlight its visual appeal. This was my haven, my own exquisite vision of a little shop. As the label on the drawer of my red cash register said, this was indeed my “Happi Time.”

Just fantasy play for a solitary eight-year old girl? Well, yes, at the time – but much more in the long run.

Styertowne Shopping Center beckoned.

While I was devoting a child’s obsessive singularity of purpose to my play store, one of the nation’s first shopping centers opened only a mile from our house in the neighboring town of Clifton.

I remember so vividly the first time I saw the Styertowne Shopping Center. Unlike most of “America’s Main Street” with compact downtown mom-and-pop enterprises dotted here and there, Styertowne was a huge playground of wonder and excitement, offering to a child’s eye an entire world of almost inconceivable merchandise: a department store here, a 5 & 10 there, a jewelry store, an ice-cream parlor around the corner, and so many other stores to explore.

Styertowne proved to be the gateway from mere innocent child’s play to a life-long passion for the world of “stores.” My childhood dreams were coming into focus – the dreams you have to have, the dreams that sustain and propel.

The escape vehicle; opening day festivities at Styertown Shopping Center back parking lot, 1952

Thus began several years of secret jaunts to Styertowne at every chance opportunity. I’d head out on my escape vehicle, the love and prize of my life – a turquoise, single-speed Schwinn. I didn’t go to shop but went instead just to walk the stores, admire the aisles and aisles of showcases that stood level with my head, look at the array of merchandise, marvel at the signs and lights and all the color. But mostly I loved “the real stores” for the rush of energy and excitement I felt every time I entered a world in which one small child’s fantasy play was writ even larger than life.

Guess who sold the most Girl Scout cookies?

As I had with my play store, I soon left Styertowne behind.  By the time I was 12, the mall seemed small, the once-exotic aisles now familiar. I knew every store, its look, its feel, its wares, its personality. I had absorbed it all, and I craved more. (But at least I didn’t have to disassemble it, as I had my play store. Styertowne still stands today, recently renovated and thriving as a community shopping center.)

Bus 32 Nutley – NEW YORK; 5th Ave at 50th in 1960’s

New York City was the brave new world.

To grow up near New York City is to be blessed with the expectations of all of the ultimate possibilities in life. And this greatest of cities was just 12 miles away, within easy reach of an energetic, curious, and independent 13-year-old. With 50 cents of babysitting earnings for my fare and nary a word to my parents, I would often walk a few blocks to the “four corners” to catch a bus for a 20-minute ride to the Port Authority Terminal in New York City, my brave new world of all things art, fashion, and design.

What drew me to the city that never sleeps was the allure of the glamour, fame, and romance of Fifth Avenue and the stores whose names were synonymous with elegance, sophistication, culture, and propriety:  B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the grand destination of them all – the iconic Tiffany’s at the corner of 57th and Fifth. With gumption and a bold sense of purpose, I mustered what little confidence I had and strode into the first three, but the closest I could ever bring myself to Tiffany’s was to stand across the street and just gawk in silent awe at the proud look of it. Little could I have known that years later I would cross that street, both literally and figuratively.

Lord & Taylor 1960; The grand façade of Tiffany & CO. 1960

So began the many years of a young girl’s storybook love affair with the island of Manhattan, the hours and hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim,

Central Park, NYC 1960; Guggenheim Museum April 1959; Virginia as teenager sporting bobby sox

a myriad of sketchbooks filled with images of every form of artistic expression, miles and miles of walks to absorb the sights, sounds, and scents, the arts and the music, the architecture and the streetscapes, the neighborhoods and the people.

Nutley High School Yearbook 1962; Mom, Dad and me, summer 1962; Nutley High School Graduation Day, June 20, 1962

Averett College took me to new heights.

By the time I was well into my high school years, I believed I had the talent and potential for a career in the arts. In fact, I wrote in my high school yearbook: “ambition is to be a commercial artist.”

Ah, but then came the family battle over college! Take the tensions that universally arise between teenage daughters and their mothers, and stir in my independent and somewhat rebellious and cantankerous personality, and it was inevitable that my mother and I would clash over vastly different perspectives for my life’s direction. While I pined for the Fashion Institute of Technology (a beatnik’s life, my mother harrumphed), she sternly pointed her finger at a no-nonsense and proper secretarial or nursing school. So it fell to my father, my wonderful, understanding, and loving father, to recognize and support my artistic passion and offer the compromise that truly set my path: a college of retail, fashion, and art – but a safely conservative, all-girls Baptist one at that!

And thus in the fall of 1962, with our spacious ’56 Olds 88 overflowing with my teenage paraphernalia, my faithful and adoring dad drove me the 500 miles to Averett College in Danville, Virginia. We parted in tears, my father’s more than mine. His were of wistful sadness, for his role was ending; mine were of wistful uncertainty, for my role was just beginning.

Dad’s pride,1956 Oldsmobile 88

After our Olds 88 was out of sight, I wiped away my tears and turned around to face my new adventure – only to soon discover that my world had spun around with me. The social mores, class distinctions, and racial attitudes of the South were unfamiliar to me, and I was taken by surprise as I tried desperately to fit in. I was a girl from the North, different in speech, dress, manners, and outlook than my predominantly southern classmates.

Dress was the easiest to remedy. I learned my first lesson in the importance of “brands” and rushed downtown to buy a McMullen Liberty print, round-collared blouse, a pair of Weejuns, and a proper ”pocketbook.” But my North Jersey quick speech and hard accent never adapted to the soft drawl and slow rhythm of the land below the Mason-Dixon Line. And then came my shocking introduction to Jim Crow,  when a newfound friend abruptly pulled me back as I jauntily headed down the aisle of a bus to sit in the rear (“nigras sit in back,” she whispered). And again on the first day back to school in 1963, when 130 classmates did not return because of the summer’s racial riots in downtown Danville.

Equally as unfamiliar were the strict rules and codes of conduct and social manners that a Southern Baptist all-girls school would impart. Dining tables were set with white linen and sterling silver cutlery. A “monitor” was in charge at each table to ensure that we learned and obeyed proper etiquette: the art of cutting bone-in chicken on your plate; how to eat soup properly; which utensil to use when and where to put it; the uses of a linen napkin; how to pass family-served dishes; proper dining table conversation and proper topics for a “lady” – and oh, so much more. From this training, I learned how to exhibit grace under pressure, to be poised and polished even in stressful situations.

At that time, Averett was a two-year junior college. It boasted a beautiful campus on an antebellum plantation. While it may have seemed little more than a finishing school for the daughters of well-to-do southern families, in reality it was a respected professional school.  And among its many offerings was a curriculum for a career in the science of retail.

I thrived academically and quickly absorbed a solid knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the retail industry: the organization and operations of a successful store; business planning and project management; personnel management and training; procurement and product merchandising; creation of a strong brand identity in the marketplace. We were also schooled in research, problem solving, and presentation and public speaking skills.

Newspaper clipping with images of local fashion show models. That’s me…. on the riser second from the right…..the northerner with the SHORT hair!!!

Elements of design and style were now being woven into my life tapestry – color, line, drawing, and composition. Located in America’s fabric belt, Averett offered textile science courses that were rated among the best in the nation. This was a bonus that would later become a pillar supporting my “critical path.”

Despite my initial misgivings and disappointments on the parental choice of my career path, it turned out that “Father Knows Best.” The intimate and nurturing environment Averett College provided was the perfect melding of personal growth and professional training that I required. By the time of my graduation, I had attained a credible resume for entering the retail industry and had been well schooled in the social etiquettes and skills needed to thrive in the corporate environments of New York City.

Averett College, 1965

In cap and gown, diploma in hand, and at the precipice of my professional career, I wore a broad smile that reflected both joy for my accomplishment and, more importantly, great love for my father, who had the wisdom to know what I needed and the faith in what I could achieve.

(In 1971, Averett College grew to become a fully accredited, co-educational, four-year college. Today, Averett University attracts students from across the nation as well as around the world and offers degree programs at numerous Virginia locations.)

After graduating from Averett College, Virginia Holder went on to pursue a dynamic career in retail and interior design. From early work for Associated Merchandising Corporation and Allied Purchasing (consolidated buying companies that supported department stores throughout the country), Virginia went on to positions with Waterford/Wedgwood USA, Inc., and Tiffany & Co., New York City. At Waterford/Wedgwood, Virginia rose from store manager to Director of Real Estate, Store Planning, Design, and Construction for the entire chain. In her years at Tiffany, Virginia served as Architectural Interior Design Manager for Tiffany stores throughout the world, including a flagship store in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about the highlights of Virginia’s multifaceted career.