After close to 40 years in Green Spring Station, boutique clothing store Trillium will close its doors on Dec. 22. While the news is sad for its many loyal customers, owner Sima Blue sees it as a happy occasion. Despite competition from big-box clothing stores and convenient online shopping that has put many small boutiques out of business, Blue’s boutique isn’t, after all, closing for lack of business.
“We’re closing because I’m going to be 77 in February. I need to move on in my life now,” said Blue. “I’ve done this almost 27 years and I’m ready for some new adventures in my life.”
As owner of Trillium, Blue was part of a long history tying Baltimore’s Jewish community to the garment industry, both in manufacturing and in sales. Manufacturers like London Fog, Haas Tailoring, L. Grief and Bro. Inc. and J Schoeneman Inc., were among the Jewish-owned men’s clothing factories in Baltimore in the 20th century. The next generation saw many Jewish-owned clothing retailers.
“Growing up, there was a store at the corner of Garrison [Boulevard] and Liberty Heights called Monroe Bayer,” said Blue. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.”
Monroe Bayer was one of five or six Jewish-owned boutiques that Blue remembers from her childhood, although many, she said, suffered loss of business around the time the Owings Mills Mall opened in the mid-1980s.
“There are some boutiques that are left, but not as many as there should be,” Blue said.
Despite having fond memories of the fashion industry in Baltimore, and a father who worked in retail selling furniture, owning a clothing store was not something Blue considered until the opportunity to purchase Trillium presented itself in 1992, when she was 50 years old.
After working as a social worker for more than a decade, Blue switched careers in 1986 when she left her job as a counselor for Associated Jewish Charities (now The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore), and took a job with Macy’s, starting their men’s personal shopping service for Maryland stores.
“I worked with them for six years and we developed a great men’s business. Then the opportunity came for me to buy this store,” Blue said. “I was 50 years old and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this.’ And I loved every minute of it. It was successful and it was the best thing I ever could have done.”
During its final weeks, every item in Trillium is discounted by 75 percent, which means almost all of the merchandise in the spacious storefront is sold out. Despite the many empty racks now, it’s easy to imagine the store bustling with shoppers, especially during the holiday season. Blue said that at times, she employed as many as seven people and occasionally had as many as four sales people on the floor at once.
One employee, Carmen Sanz, an in-store seamstress and saleswoman, has been at Trillium since before Blue took over in 1992. Blue calls her “a godsend.”
“I’ve been here 37 years,” said Sanz, a Lutherville resident originally from Spain. “I started doing alterations by appointment, but Sima realized I could sell clothes too. So now I do everything but sign the checks.”
If small boutiques aren’t enough of a rarity in today’s economic climate, having an in-store seamstress, according to Blue, is almost unheard of. For Sanz, being able to provide such a personal service — selling an item, fitting the item, then altering the item — all in one location, has been extremely gratifying.
“The best part is to have met such wonderful people over the years,” Sanz said. “You call them at the beginning of the season, and they trust you. That made me feel good.”
Nancy Grasmick, who served as Maryland’s first female superintendent of schools from 1991 to 2011, has been a trusting, loyal customer for 15 years. Despite living in northern Baltimore County, Grasmick frequently made the trek to Green Spring Station to shop at Trillium.
“This is bad news for me,” she said with a laugh, noting that Blue’s personal touch for finding just the right outfit for her will be missed.
“She knew her customers. She knew what they liked, even down to the color,” Grasmick said. “It was so personalized. You don’t see this in big stores anymore. Where someone is so attentive to every customer.”
Baltimorean Carol Luterman, wife of former Temple Oheb Shalom Cantor Melvin Luterman, can’t remember when she started shopping at Trillium, but knows that Blue’s memory for what looks good on her customers is practically flawless.
“She became familiar with the brands that looked good on me,” Luterman said. “She knows how to buy, and she knows how to merchandise. And the most important thing is she told the truth.”
Both Grasmick and Luterman noted the phrase “that’s not for you” as one that Blue would repeat as she searched to find the perfect outfit.
“I loved it,” Grasmick said. “She gave you the unvarnished truth.”
Blue loves the creative part of her work, and said she always cared less about which item she sold, and more about what the item looked like on the person. She considers herself both “left-brained and right-brained,” both creative and analytical. She even likened her long career in retail to her former career in counseling.
“It’s kind of like social work. You meet with clients and they tell you about their lives and about their problems. You get personal with them,” said Blue. “For me, it responded to all of the parts of my personality. The people part, the creative part and the intellectual part.”