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Lakin's daughter takes over the store

Sunday Telegram – By Mary Jo Hill
March 25, 2001

At age 18, Phyllis E. Lakin left her hometown of Gardner and went off to college.

It was the start of her life in Boston, where she got involved in theater, sang professionally, and reveled in the good shopping. She also worked as the manager of a research laboratory at Harvard Medical School. For 34 years, Ms. Lakin was immersed in the culture of big city life.

She was the only child of Leo and Ida Lakin, a couple who came to Gardner in 1935 to open a children's clothing shop. The family business took root in the community and has never let go.

Still, their daughter never was expected to take over the store.

Knowing that shopping malls gave specialty stores an uncertain future, at best, she said, her parents wanted her to go off to college and have a career. But several years ago, life took a turn that led her back home.

Today, she is the one ringing up sales and designing store windows at Lakin's.

The story of Lakin's started with the marriage of a man with a high school education and a love for literature and a young woman who had majored in math at Radcliffe College in Cambridge.

Mr. Lakin's family had run a dry-goods store in Southbridge. In the early 1920's, he opened Lakin Brothers, a men's clothing store, in Webster Square in Worcester, his daughter said.

Mrs. Lakin, after her education at Radcliffe, specialized in women's wear and she met her future husband on a blind date.

Children's specialty shops were becoming chic, so shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to Gardner and opened a new store.

Ms. Lakin said she had a wonderful childhood and her parents were very much in love. Up until the end of 1985, Mrs. Lakin worked in the store with her husband, but she had a heart condition and died the following year at age 78.

Ms. Lakin said she spent vacations with her mother at the end of her life. After her mother died, she said, she began coming to Gardner on weekends to be with her 88-year-old father.

When Mr. Lakin broke his hip several years later and could not be there for the store's 59th sidewalk sale, Ms. Lakin offered to step in.

She said she was exhilarated by the work, a situation that left her father happily amazed. She and three friends kept the store open during the months he recuperated.

Then, late in 1997, when Lakin's was about to start its holiday season, the busiest time of the year, Mr. Lakin broke his leg.

Ms. Lakin had some experience running the business and felt in her gut that it was the right thing to do. "I knew this is where I belonged," she said.

She took a leave of absence from Harvard and began working in Gardner. At the same time, she became an advocate for her father in his medical care.

In the years since, Ms. Lakin has stocked more merchandise and added cheerful paintings of storybook characters. She started a campaign featuring young customers wearing outfits from Lakin's.

Intellectualism was less important in this line of work, while fun and emotion took center stage, she said.

Mr. Lakin eventually recovered from his broken leg, but went into respiratory distress and died Feb. 23 at the age of 102.

Today, at age 55, Ms. Lakin has retired from Harvard and taken over Lakin's.

"The store is here and I'm here with it," she said. "This is more than a business. It is the spirit of my family."

LAKIN'S / 68 Parker Street / Gardner, MA 01440 / (978) 632-1699

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