Nellie Kumagai decided some time ago that when she turned 70 years old, she would close her women’s clothing boutique, Stuart’s Apparel by Nellie K in Los Altos, so she could travel, golf and spend more time with her children and grandchildren.
The time has nearly come. As her final day in business approaches at the end of February, after 50 years in retail, she knows that moving on will be bittersweet.
“I want to thank my customers from the bottom of my heart – they are so wonderful, you just don’t know,” Kumagai said in an interview with the Town Crier. “Really, I’m about to tear up. I truly love them all.”
After moving to Main Street in Los Altos in 2006, Kumagai kept many of her regular clients from the previous incarnation of her shop at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto and gained several new ones.
Customers became acquaintances, who then became friends, who then became family, Kumagai said. She’s been invited to weddings, birthday parties and countless other events by clients who were once strangers but now frequent her shop a couple of times a month. Since she began informing customers of her plans a few weeks ago, they’ve been dropping in weekly.
“I’ve had some of these customers for 45 or 50 years,” Kumagai said. “Those are the ones I really feel bad for, because they have been saying, ‘What am I going to do?’... Their husbands are saying, ‘Where are we going to shop? It’s so easy to get their presents.’”
Going out on a high note
Following customers’ sadness at Stuart Apparel’s impending closure are exclamations of happiness for Kumagai and the freedom that will come from retirement. Leaving on her own terms is something she doesn’t take for granted.
Kumagai has been blessed with success in an industry that is constantly changing, especially in the wake of online alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar shop.
“Business is terrific,” she said. “I could really actually go on for a long time, but if I stayed another year, it’d be another year and another year after that, and then I’d be thinking I really need to get out. It’s not one of those scenarios where you say, ‘I’m being evicted,’ or ‘My rent is going up.’ My landlord is terrific and even extended the lease to February so I can get my merchandise out.”
She largely credits her booming business to the loyalty of her customers. Her clients – she stocks merchandise for women from 25 to 90 – aren’t what she considers online shoppers.
“I don’t find as much (online preference) because my shoppers are shoppers that come in to get motivated,” Kumagai said. “I basically don’t have the same situation as maybe a brand-new store that’s come in, or maybe a store that’s less than five years old, because they really have to build up their customers. … Customers always come in at the last minute because we get new merchandise all the time and they know that.”
Just as many of her customers have remained constant, Kumagai said Main Street has, too. A Los Altos resident for 48 years, she noted how stores have filtered in and out but the look of downtown is largely the same for those who traipse the sidewalks shaded by sprawling trees. The familiarity is “really unique and nice about this area,” she added.
Kumagai is gearing up for her departure and her final holiday season, the most hectic time of year for Stuart’s Apparel. During a “massive” sale right after Christmas, pretty much everything will be discounted, she said. Any unsold merchandise will be donated to a local nonprofit organization, like the American Cancer Society’s Discovery Shop down the street.
“This way, really everybody benefits,” she said.
Once Stuart’s Apparel is closed to the public, the old stock donated and the space cleaned out, Kumagai can start planning her new decade.
Being free of the business means being able to travel abroad with her four sisters and two brothers and to scoot down to Southern California to watch her grandkids’ sports games. If her relatives lived closer and volunteered to keep the store running, she joked that she may never retire due to her level of attachment.
“Life is a cycle – it just goes on,” Kumagai said. “You don’t want to get off that cycle too late and not get to do everything you really want to do. I don’t want to have any regrets, really.”
Stuart’s Apparel is located at 157 Main St. For more information, call 559-0163.