Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.
Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.
– Gloria Steinem, American journalist and women’s rights advocate
I first met Laura Leventer three years ago at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by a good friend who has known Laura since high school. I was struck by her utter confidence and fashion style – a fusion of classic, vintage and glamour. It was not a surprise to learn that she was proprietor of a clothing store called Personal Pizazz (3048 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley, CA, 94705, 510.420.0704).
What’s interesting to me is that Laura, now 45, was a teacher for 10 years and then spent the following six years as a department chairperson, principal, and district administrator. Though she loved teaching, working in administration proved to be unrewarding, very political and extremely stressful, especially on her family, with her son being very young at the time. The idea of opening her own clothing store for mostly women but also men wasn’t far-fetched, as Laura had always loved fashion and owned a business license for her personal shopping gigs on the side. She had worked in retail in college and gained valuable knowledge about the entire range of retail processes, and attended a couple of shows and made a few connections in her capacity as a personal shopper. Laura took a district-level administrative position to start saving for her big investment. When her father passed away and left her with enough money to add to her savings, she felt comfortable taking the risk and made that life-changing leap.
Filling the fashion niche in Berkeley
When Laura was an administrator, she wore business suits that many admired for being original, different and the antithesis of the retail-chain business suit. “That was the niche I wanted to fill,” she explained. “That was my original direction when I opened – nice-looking business wear that was functional enough for work but interesting enough so you didn’t feel like you were putting on a boring suit.”
Although she has clients who come to her store for that very reason, they are few and far between. Personal Pizazz’s clientele are mostly women 35 and up, although the timeless styles she carries appeal to all ages, such as formal dresses for proms and bar mitzvahs. Laura has found that many women are no longer dressing in business suits and the ones who do, for whatever reasons, are sticking with the retail-chain look. It’s been a challenge to reach out to them. “I’ve had to evolve to who comes in and what people want,” she explained. Berkeley is already home to artistic, flowing, interesting clothing shops. “It’s done; there are tons of that,” she said. There are, however, very few shops that offer fitted clothing. “I have people come in all the time and ask me if this is a vintage shop because the clothing is more classic style,” she said. And with its purple walls, chandeliers, carved sales-register desk, antique armoires and curio cabinets, and velvet dressing-room drapes, the vibe is definitely vintage.
As the sole employee, Laura is at the store six days a week. “It’s just me doing everything,” she said. As such, being organized is extremely important. She does her own accounting and all administrative tasks, which she tries to complete during store hours to keep work and life in balance. That said, her priority is to always be available for her customers. Despite the creation of charts and graphs to identify trends and make forecasts, there’s no logic to traffic flow into her store. “When I unlock the door for business, I never know what to expect,” she said, which is another reason to be organized and to plan ahead.
Laura goes to Los Angeles for market week four to five times a year. “Since I’m here six days a week, I’m very organized about what I do,” she said. She flies down Monday morning, attends 20-minute, pre-arranged appointments all day, and flies home that night. The few times she flies back East for appointments with her New York City-based vendors, she takes the Sunday red-eye flight and flies back Monday night. She previews vendors’ digitized line sheets ahead of time, which streamlines her appointments. “I’ve learned to never buy at the show because you will make mistakes,” she said. “You never know if another company will offer similar clothing at a better price or different color.” Laura takes detailed notes and snaps pictures with her iPad, which help her determine what she will order when she returns home. “I am particular and I know what I like,” she said. “I know what works for my customers.”
Laura has learned to always be prepared for the unexpected. Case in point: The ceiling lights died last Thursday, on the day that her store is open until 8PM. While her husband was willing to replace them, the lease calls for professional servicing. “That’s money I didn’t plan on spending, but I don’t have a choice,” she said. Therefore, Laura noted: “Always give yourself wiggle room.” She’s learned from a neighboring business that anything can go wrong and when it does you need to know what to do and whom to call.
Despite the challenges of being a business owner and sole employee, Laura revels in her son’s assessment of her career – indeed, her life: “As my son says, now my job is my hobby and my hobby is my job,” she said.
Q&A: In her own words
Q: Describe Personal Pizazz in 10 words or less.
A: Classic, quality clothing with a twist.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
A: I’ve lived in and near Berkeley my whole life, and I dress the way I dress, but there aren’t that many people who do. Even people who want to, think they can’t because other people don’t. There is pressure to not care about clothing. That’s a constant battle. If it [an article of clothing] makes you happy, then your outlook is better, you feel happy, and in turn you look better.
Q: What’s the best thing about being the proprietor of Personal Pizazz?
A: Not having to answer to anyone else. My previous boss was the school board and I was jumping through hoops. There’s a lot of bureaucracy – forms to fill out, things you have to do. I still have a lot of forms to fill out and things I have to do, but I don’t have to justify or explain it to somebody else.
Q: What advice would you give to women who are looking to make a career transition or transformation?
A: Do your homework. To be honest, I thought I’d be making a lot more profit by now. There are decisions you have to make along the way. You have to create a nest egg. I was saving and saving until I got to the point where I could say, okay, I can go this amount of time without bringing home any money. And I have this much that I can invest and don’t expect to be able to take out because you’re not going to turn a profit quickly. People have to discover you and they have to become faithful. Whatever the business happens to be, you’re going to make mistakes in the beginning until you figure out what your niche is and what’s going to work. You have to have enough exposure so people know you’re there.
Post script: If you’re a local and this blog has whetted your interest, make your way to Personal Pizazz and let Laura know that you read about her store here. If you’re not a local but find your way to the San Francisco Bay Area, make Personal Pizazz a destination point.
*My Transitions and Transformations profile series chronicle stories of amazing women, not limited to women 50 and above, who have made inspirational and creative transitions or transformations in their lives. The series will run bi-weekly.