Beth Bishop Shop, the iconic women’s clothing store in Orleans, has closed its doors for the final time after 61 years.
“I’ve loved it,” says owner Lynn Comandich, who began working here in 1975 and took over as the store’s third owner in 1980. But “I’ve done this for 41 years and I want to retire.” The stately white Colonial on Route 28 about half a block from Main Street set the tone for the quality women’s clothing the store sold. In 1990 Comandich moved Beth Bishop here from its original location next door. Her husband, an architect, redesigned the first floor so one room of clothing flowed into the next. Beth Bishop herself returned and cut the ribbon to open the store in its new home.
Bishop founded the store in 1955 after she moved to the Cape from Bellows Falls, Vt., where she ran a general store. Her husband had experience in the fashion industry as a menswear buyer, but he died suddenly as they moved toward opening their new store in Orleans. Despite the fact that Bishop said she knew only how to pump gas and count money, she plugged on with plans for the store. And even after she sold the business and retired to Eastham, she continued to shop here. Sometimes Comandich waited on her.
“I felt like I had the principal in front of me,” she remembers. “She would spit out these questions—she was brilliant. I learned from those questions.”
While you might imagine that Bishop would be “prim and proper,” Comandich remembers her “raucous laugh.” “She was so natural and I really enjoyed her,” she says.
Today is one of the store’s final sale days, and all of the remaining merchandise has been shifted to one room at the front of the store, overlooking the street. Late last month, merchandise flew out the door during a 40 percent off sale. A long line of women formed at the cash register, each holding a pile of clothing. In the first two days of the sale, the store did as well as it does in the entire months of January and February.
Comandich thanked the community for its support. During the sale days, many regular customers came in and “were so gracious in their conversations about the store and how they would miss us,” she says.
Comandich, who was born in Manhattan and grew up outside New York City, began working here in 1975. She had already graduated from college where she studied fashion. In 1976 she became the store’s manager, and four years later, in 1980, she bought the store from owners Tom and Irene Carey, whom she credits as her mentors. Tom Carey had been the head of the international division of Vanity Fair lingerie. He and his wife bought Beth Bishop in 1969 as “their retirement project.” From Tom Carey, Comandich learned the business end of the store, and from Irene Carey she learned customer rapport.
Back in the 1970s, there were no computers. “We hand-wrote everything,” Comandich says. “Added it up manually.”
Women’s buying habits were different then, too. “People would come in twice a year and buy a wardrobe for a whole season,” she says. “Now, people buy by need,” for trips and special events.
Back in the 1970s the store featured Lanz dresses for young women, Bleyle suits for older women, “mom pants” with high waists and cable knit sweaters (think about the “red sweater guy” at the second presidential debate). Today, Lanz dresses and Bleyle suits are vintage items you’ll find listed on Etsy.com. Yet customers who bought those items back in the 1970s have remained customers of Beth Bishop and shopped here with their own daughters for Capri pants.
One of the major components of Comandich’s job is buying the clothing. Five times a year she travels to New York City for a few days, and she attends another five shows in Boston and generally six more elsewhere. While she enjoys the shows, “those are weeks I have to be somewhere, I don’t have a choice,” she says. Part of the thrill of retiring will be the freedom she will now have to travel to visit grandchildren on the west coast, for example. Furthermore, the store was always open year-round. “It was important for my community and my staff,” Comandich says. “I wanted to support the community that supported us.”
A couple of weeks ago Comandich hosted a party at the nearby Barley Neck Inn to thank her 10 employees. “I have been blessed with an extraordinary group of women,” she says.
After 41 years, what will she miss? Comandich says she’ll miss her staff and customers. When her seasonal customers come in at the start of the season “we’re all huggy, huggy,” catching up on one another’s lives, she says. She’ll miss the buying trips, too. “After 41 years in the industry I’ve made very good friends with sales reps,” she says.
And then she’ll miss “the fun of it. It’s hard work, but it’s fun. You feel like you’re on the edge of what’s happening next.”