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Home Arts and Culture  The queen moves on
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Wednesday, November 17,2010

The queen moves on

Former Liebermann's owner Betty Price leaves Lansing, leaving behind an indelible legacy

by Lawrence Cosentino
Betty Price walked briskly across the sitting room she has been walking briskly across for 64 years.

“Let’s talk over here.”


Price, 97, is the cordial, kindly queen of Lansing retail. Walking is what she does. For decades, she was the owner and floor-walking sales maestro at Liebermann’s Department Store, a lost sanctuary of downtown elegance.


Now she runs a jewelry business, traveling the world to find the best designs, donating half the profits to the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts.


Her sitting room is full of amber light. The sun pours through a 40-foot bank of high windows onto gold wallpaper and a burnished slate floor. The space is spectacular, but it’s so open and simply furnished you could clean it with a leaf blower.


“I wanted a simple design,” she said. “I love doing things. I don’t love housework.”


Always the classiest being on the block, Price commissioned her East Lansing house from modernist Lansing architect Kenneth Black in 1946, when her neighborhood north of the Michigan State University campus was the edge of a field.


When Black agreed to build the house, Price said, “I was just high. He’d been dying to do a house like this. Everybody else was doing Tudor cottages.”


Last Thursday, the house was in transition. The usual junk that jumps out of the closet before a big move — boxes, files, rolls of Christmas wrapping paper — was piling up at the edges.


Price will soon leave her Lansing life to be near her son, Tom, and grandkids in Milwaukee. Price’s other son, Michael, died in September, leaving her without family in Lansing.


Nobody would blame Price for sitting in this big amber room and letting the memories harden around her.


On her way from the kitchen, she pointed to the Eames chair where her husband, Don, sat hundreds of nights, reading and smoking his pipe.


She bought the chair for Don in 1961, the year the Prices opened their East Lansing store. “He worked so hard that year, I thought, ‘He needs something special.’”


But Price is not stuck in the past.


“You do what you have to do,” she said.


That’s right, Mrs. Price … Mrs. Price?


She was already out the back door, on the patio, kicking at dry leaves.


“We have to take care of these, Tom,” she called to her son inside.


She waved to the south, toward MSU and her beloved Wharton Center.


“I’ve raised half a million, and I want to make it a million,” she said, giving no hint of the one-liner to follow.


“The arts are neglected. They don’t need another athletic supporter over there. They’ve got ‘em.”



Lower level


In the 1970s, Betty Price sold so much Swedish crystal in little Lansing, Michigan, that she was invited to a reception in Stockholm by the King of Sweden, along with representatives from major retailers like Bonwit Teller and J.L. Hudson.


Everyone who talks about Betty Price, including Betty Price, says she is a born seller.


“I sold more doughnuts than any Girl Scout in Saginaw,” she said proudly. She lived in Saginaw before coming to school at MSU in 1931.


Handbags were her first beachhead.


“Back in those days, people had to have shoes and a handbag to go with every outfit,” she said. “That was great for the handbag business.”


Thousands of times, Price ran up and down the stairs to the stock room of Liebermann’s Trunk, the first version of Liebermann’s in Lansing, holding one shoe, in search of the perfect match.


“I was young,” she said. “It was good for me.”


Decades later, in Liebermann’s mid-century heyday, Price was still at it, running up and down the floating steps of the modernist storefront she commissioned from George Nelson.


“I can still see her going up and down those stairs,” former customer and employee John Eby recalled. “That’s probably what’s kept her going all these years — all that exercise she got.”


Last week, Price’s friend, Joyce Banish, called the University Club to make arrangements for Price’s 97th birthday celebration Saturday. The staff asked if they should seat Price close to the door.


“I told them to put her in the center of the room, where everybody can talk to her,” Banish said. “She can outwalk any of us.”


People thought Price’s father, Hugo Boettscher, was crazy when he bought the Edmonds luggage store at 107 S. Washington Square in downtown Lansing from its aging owners in 1931. The “real” Depression, as Price calls it, was just beginning.


“Everybody predicted he’d be out of business in six months,” Price said.


Boettscher wasn’t the only businessman to forge ahead in tough times. That same year, R.E. Olds built the Olds Tower, now the Boji Tower, still Lansing’s tallest building.


Within months, Liebermann’s Trunk Co., named after Boettscher’s brother-in-law, was thriving in the shadow of that tower.


Price had three brothers, but none of them showed an interest in working at their father’s store. The youngest, Junie, was killed in World War II. Price still mourns him.


“He was a darling boy. I’d come home from school and take him out in the carriage. He was very bright and had a wonderful attitude.”


She paused a few seconds, as if pondering whether to indulge in a rare negative remark.


“How could we get into such a situation? Politics — lousy politics. I still am angry to think we were in a war and hope we never, ever get in another one.”


When Price graduated from Michigan State in 1935, the born seller dropped the notion of being an English teacher and asked her father if she could work in the family store.


“He gave me half of the lower floor — you didn’t dare call it the basement,” Price said.


Price’s legendary eye for quality started straying from handbags right away.


At luggage trade shows in Chicago and New York, vendors displayed the latest gift items. She persuaded her father to add a gift table in the base — er, lower level.


The table became the store’s hot spot.


John Eby moved to New York from Lansing in 1979, but he vividly recalls many trips to the lower level with his mom.


Far from being bored, he couldn’t wait to go.


“I was mesmerized by this wonderful woman who knew everything about everything in her store and could give you the history behind every piece,” he said.


“I
remember her showing me how this George Jensen teapot was hand-hammered
from a flat piece of silver. They would hammer it upward to form the
teapot. I would sit there and listen to her for hours, she was that
engaging and excited about everything in the store.”


Unsurprisingly, Price had the whole lower floor to herself before long.


“I
went to New York by myself to pick out the things,” she said. “Daddy
gave me an open book. If I could sell it, I could buy it.”




On the floor


Liebermann’s
also occupied a space two doors down from Price’s lower level gift
table, at 113 S. Washington Square — the store that modernist icon
George Nelson redesigned in 1966. As her empire expanded in the 1940s,
Price moved the home goods to that space.


By now, she had a
steadfast partner in her husband, Don, whom she married in 1938. The met
in 1931, when Betty was a freshman at MSU and “not at all interested in
getting married.”


But Price’s eye for quality was already well developed.


“The first time I went out with him, I knew he was the man for me,” she said.


Don
Price had a good job working in Edsel Ford’s office, but he joined
Betty and her father at Liebermann’s — and Betty dodged a move to
Detroit — when Ford died suddenly in 1943 and the less congenial Henry
Ford II took over.


Don’s low-key salesmanship complemented Betty’s gregarious style.


“He took to the store as if he were born to it,” Price said.


As
Boettcher grew older and Price’s sales acumen worked its magic, her
responsibilities grew to include managerial and accounting tasks. Her
staff tracked every sale on a 3-by-5 card, which she bundled and studied
at home, re-ordering items by phone after her boys were in bed.


“I didn’t want to be in an office. I wanted to be on the floor, with the customers,” she said.


There was Rosenthal china and crystal, George Jensen silver, Ghurka bags and a lot of other high-end stuff.


“Mrs.
Price was always on the floor, explaining what she’d just received from
Japan or China or Thailand or Scandinavia,” Eby recalled. “It was
always wonderful to be waited on by her. She was a walking encyclopedia
of the decorative arts.”


But
you could also walk out of Liebermann’s with an elegant glass vase or
wooden bowl for under 10 bucks, putting the celebrated Liebermann’s box
in almost everyone’s reach.


“It
was like getting something from Tiffany’s,” Eby said. “Even though you
didn’t pay a lot for it, everybody in Lansing appreciated seeing that
box.”


The gift wrap
department was a special source of pride. Price encouraged wild
creativity, and larded the gift wrap counter with exotic ribbons, papers
and ornaments.


“Once,
for a birthday, I got a gift that had these beautiful cut-outs of a
figure in gold paper,” Eby said. “You could always spot which packages
came from Liebermann’s under the Christmas tree.”


In
1968, Lansing launched the first sister city agreement in Michigan,
with Otsu, Japan. The founding president of Lansing Community College,
Phillip Gannon, asked Price to wrap the ceremonial gift. Price’s package
was inspired by Hideyuki Oka’s 1967 book on creative wrapping, “How to
Wrap Five Eggs,” which still sits on her bookshelf.


Robert
Bell, a Liebermann’s employee for 42 years, remembers wrapping gifts in
the school colors of all the Lansing, East Lansing and Okemos high
schools, with little diplomas tied on.


It
was hard work, and it only intensified during the Christmas season. “A
lot of Sundays after Mass, I’d go in and work the rest of the day,
getting shipping out, and she’d be there too,” Bell said.


About
2:30, when the crowd dispersed a bit, Price would slip out the back
door and in the back entrance at nearby Jim’s Restaurant, owned by Jim
Vlahakis. “When they saw me coming, they’d start making the fruit
salad,” she said.


Long before anybody heard of a personal shopper, Price and Bell got carte blanche from Lansing’s busy professionals.


“During
graduation, you’d get a slew of requests,” Bell said. “They’d say, “I
got three girls and two boys, I want to spend $20.’”


The customer base
was diverse. Price recalls Ransom E. Olds walking in at least once. (One
of Olds’ three daughters was a weekly regular, but Price doesn’t
remember which one.) Price regularly visited the Olds mansion to bring
merchandise to another daughter, who “wasn’t up to shopping.” Many
elderly and indisposed customers got house calls from Price.


The store’s elegance intimidated some people, but Price made sure there were affordable gifts in stock.


“A
lot of people felt uncomfortable walking into a store like this, that was
full of beautiful, elegant things,” Price said. “They were afraid to
walk in the door, but we won them over.”


Some
people just came in because they were lonely. “There was one woman who
spent hours,” Price said. “We were always gracious to her, showed her
the new things, and she didn’t buy anything! That’s all right, we were
serving a purpose because she was lonesome.”




’She’s effervescent’


Bell, of Lansing, worked at Liebermann’s 42 years, raising two daughters and putting them through college.


“I don’t think she was ever harsh to anyone,” Bell said of Price.


Before
coming to Liebermann’s, Bell worked for a cleaning service. After he
did two cleaning jobs at the Boettscher house, Price’s father suggested
he interview at the store.


“I worked myself from stockboy to V.P. of the corporation,” Bell said. “That has been very fruitful to me.”


Like Price, Bell connected well with his customers, often to his subsequent benefit.


“As
a black man, I was very fortunate to know the president of the bank,
the governor’s wife, the superintendent of schools,” he said.


When
Liebermann’s closed in 1991, Bell was in his 50s and considered himself
lucky to get a job in the Lansing school district. He credits
connections he made at the store.


Eby
worked for Price only a year before getting the wanderlust for New
York. He landed a job at Royal Copenhagen, wholesalers of flatware and
porcelain, thanks in large part to Price’s recommendation, and ended up
at Asprey of London on Fifth Avenue. His career path, he said, began
with those childhood trips to Price’s lower level.


After
Price retired from Liebermann’s in 1987, the business went downhill. A
year later, Don Price died. Liebermann’s closed in 1991, the victim of a
downtown Lansing slump, the rise of shopping malls, and the absence of
its guiding spirit.


But
Betty Price walks on. In the past 20 years, her jewelry shows have been
a fixture in Lansing, and her circle of admirers has widened.


Price
often travels alone, but Banish has gone with her on many of her
jewelry safaris, looking for amber in Poland or silver in Mexico.


“She
knows everyone,” Banish said. “She goes into the Sheraton in Warsaw and
everyone is excited that Betty Price is there. You would think the
queen is coming.”


It’s
the same way in Lansing. On Tuesdays, Price goes to Goodrich’s Shop-Rite to take advantage of Seniors Day (10 percent off) and schmooze.


“She causes quite a stir,” Banish said.


“She’s like Alka-Seltzer — she’s effervescent and she makes you feel better.”


Price’s
vigor is astounding — a touch of high blood pressure is her only health
complaint — but Banish is most impressed by her positive attitude.


“There’s
not a negative bone in her body,” Banish said. “Even the ordeal of
closing up her home and moving to Milwaukee — she has a positive outlook
on it.”


After all, Price has been through this before — in 1931, when she came to MSU.


“I died when we moved here from Saginaw,” Price said. “I thought Saginaw was wonderful. It didn’t take me long.”


Toward
noon Thursday, Banish called at Price’s house for a visit, daughter in
tow. Talk turned to the impending move to Milwaukee, where a
family-owned shop, George Watts & Son Luxury Gifts, has a reputation
similar to Liebermann’s.


Banish thinks it would be child’s play for Price to infiltrate the 140-year-old store.


“If
you just work there two hours a day and have lunch in their tea room,
you’ll have all kinds of people coming in — the Betty groupies,” she
told Price.


“The gentleman there is getting on in years,” Price mused. “Maybe he could use some help.”


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