The wood floor creaks in Lakin’s Children’s Fine Apparel and owner Phyllis Lakin will never laminate it. There’s no need to change what has always been perfectly good.
“I crawled on this wooden floor as a baby. A lot of my identity is tied up in this store,” she said. The boom times of downtown Gardner with factory workers filling the
stores are indeed long gone, but Lakin’s Children’s Fine Apparel still remains in all its eclecticism at 68 Parker St. The store is more than 80 years old, originally opening on Main Street
in 1935 before moving to Parker Street 10 years later. Parents Leo and Ida ran the store together, and Phyllis, their only child, took ownership in 2001 following her father’s death. Lakin grew up in the store, a true daughter of downtown.
She decorates the store’s window display with an ample variety of dolls and clothing, surrounding the customer on both sides before the final step toward the entrance.
Despite the colorful effort, with its small size the storefront could quite honestly be missed by a passing car or pedestrian. But once inside, the room is considerably long in depth and the sheer amount of clothing for boys and girls from newborn age to early 20s, as well as the shoes, dolls, jewelry and other accessories — much of it American-made — defies the outward expectation. And then there’s Lakin herself, the one-woman show who is happy to stand back and let the customers explore — to buy or not buy at their leisure — but if called upon, can entertain their children with a shining rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
The easy joy that she possesses comes in part from knowing what it’s like to do something different. She spent more than 25 years in the Boston area and worked in medical research.When her f ather broke his leg in 1997 at 99 years old, she came back to Gardner to help him run the store as he rehabbed. In the last three months of her mother Ida’s life in 1986 following a stroke, Lakin stayed by her side and promised to do the same for her father. To everybody’s surprise, Leo still had some good years left in him and Lakin said he was mentally sharp until he died in February 2001 at 102 years old. Growing a passion for running the store since coming home and feeling compelled to keep up the family legacy, Lakin never went back to Harvard. Running Lakin’s is an all-together different kind of gig than Harvard as well, being more independent and less competitive. “One thing I do here — I never bring my work home with me. It’s kind of like being the ruler of your own kingdom. And it might be a teeny-weeny kingdom, but it’s yours,” Lakin said. She described her parents as “renaissance people” that were “very multifaceted.” Ida was a math major at Radcliffe College, which functioned as the female institution of Harvard until Radcliffe and Harvard officially merged as the university became co-ed.
Lakin said there was nothing her mother couldn’t do, being very intelligent and a capable handywoman with mechanical intuition. While not having the opportunity to go to college, Leo was a voracious reader and well versed in subjects such as psychology, poetry and philosophy. He was also an affable, dynamic personality that befriended Gardner’s French-speaking population, and as an elderly man drew the attention of youth that wanted to hear his stories and recollection of history. Leo and Ida opened Lakin’s in Gardner as newlyweds, both having previous experience in the clothing industry. As an only child, Lakin recalled being well loved but also raised by her parents to understand that the world was much bigger than just her.
“They were true soulmates. ... My parents were in fact my dearest friends,” she said. “I adore my parents for many reasons, but probably most importantly because they were so wise.” Adding to that happiness was the downtown scene during her childhood, when she would think of the other shop owners as her “aunts and uncles.”
On Parker Street, Lakin would playfully sneak into The Hollywood restaurant and hide away from her mother. With her dad she would go to Robillard’s Pharmacy, which had a food and drink area, and fill up on a chocolate ice cream soda and a hot dog with relish and mustard.
“I thought I was the queen. I thought I ruled,” she said. “I had an absolutely glorious childhood ... I had a ball. I loved growing up in Gardner because when I grew up in Gardner, Gardner was at its best.” It is that sense of community that remains with her to this day, with a glass-half-full optimism that downtown one day can thrive like the past. It is the reason she has a substantial clearance section for customers, wants customers to walk out happy, and keep prices affordable for them.
As for the future of her store, Lakin is a person of uncommon vitality. She is an avid exerciser who gave up refined sugar and refined flour long ago, and said she is physically stronger now than when she was 20.
The plan is simple: “As long as I’m alive, Lakin’s is alive. That’s my goal,” she said. “If you go into something with love and a pure heart, you will not fail.”
The Gardner News