Gelema’s Legacy

This post was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the passage of time.

My mom taught me the retail business.

She taught me about open-to-buy, how to shop a line, how to rotate inventory, how to keep it fresh, and when to mark it down. She taught me about customer service, how the customer was always right, and what to do when they weren’t. She taught me that being a good buyer didn’t mean buying what you liked, but channeling your customers’ likes. She taught me never to be star-struck; she dressed Oprah when she was just another reporter out of many at WJZ in Baltimore and still needed a last name. She taught me where all the best little restaurants were in NYC, and what streets you didn’t go past. She taught me that you respect the lady who cleans the restrooms the same as the one who collects the store rent. She taught me that everyone has a story, and that if everyone threw all their problems in a pile, and you went in and pulled out a new set, you’d wish you had your old problems back.

She was a bit of a legend in Baltimore retailing

… the first female divisional merchandise manager for The May Co. in the 50’s. Thanks to her I never even grasped the concept of the “glass ceiling”. After her death, I found boxes full of newspaper clippings about her, some dating all the way back to the 50’s… I never knew she was such a trailblazer – she was just my mom.

She had me a bit later in life, when she knew who she was, where she was going and what she wanted. That was unusual back then. There would be no slowing down for a baby – growing up stewing in so much industry knowledge was just the way it was. It took me quite a while to figure out that everyone didn’t know what I know, and that I’d been privy to something quite special along the way. Thanks to my mother’s tutelage and trust, I got an amazing start in the business, and have some stellar items on my resumé. She’s been gone for nearly ten years now, longer if you count the Alzheimer’s.

Today would have been her 89th birthday.

I still hear her voice echo in my thoughts, and I frequently wonder what she would think about the state of retail today, and I hope she would be at least a little proud of what small mark I’ve made on design. She taught me a lot, gave me a great start, and she mentored a lot of people. I think she’d like what we’re doing here.

Miss you mom.

photo credit: My mother, as photographed by my father, circa 1957


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