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Wednesday, October 30,2013

In memoriam

Lansing retail matriarch Betty Price dies at 99

by Lawrence Cosentino
Betty Price, a classy, comforting presence in Lansing for much of the 20th century, died peacefully at her home in Milwaukee Oct. 20. She would have turned 100 Nov. 4.

From 1961 to 1987, Price was the owner and floor-walking sales maestro at Liebermann’s Department Store, a lost sanctuary of downtown elegance that her father opened in 1931. After she retired, she traveled the world looking for fine jewelry for her trunk shows. She donated half the profits to the Wharton Center. “The arts are neglected,” Price said in a 2010 interview, adding as she pointed toward MSU. “They don’t need another athletic supporter over there. They’ve got ‘em.”

Price moved to Milwaukee in 2010 to be near her son, Tom, and two grandchildren. Tom Price said the last three years were a gift for him and his children. “It was hard for her to leave Lansing, but was nice to have her here,” he said. “It was the first time I’ve spent a lot of time with her since I was a little kid.”

Berry Price liked to call herself a born seller and nobody cared to argue. In the 1970s, Price sold so much Swedish crystal in Lansing that she was invited to Stockholm by the King of Sweden, along with repre sentatives from major retailers like Bonwit Teller and J.L. Hudson.

She grew up in Saginaw before coming to school at MSU. When she graduated in 1935, she dropped the notion of being an English teacher and persuaded her father, Hugo Beottcher, to let her stock a gift table in the store’s lower level. The table became the store’s hot spot.

She married her husband, Don Price, in 1938 and lured him away from a job at General Motors to work at the store. Don’s low-key salesmanship complemented Betty’s gregarious style.

Price had an eye for clean modernist style. In 1966, she commissioned modernist icon George Nelson to redesign the Liebermann’s store at 107 S.

Washington Square, the only storefront Nelson designed. (The building, recently vacated by another retail business, is still owned by her family.) She commissioned her East Lansing house from modernist Lansing architect Kenneth Black in 1946, when her neighborhood north of the MSU campus was the edge of a field.

Liebermann’s customer John Eby moved to New York from Lansing in 1979, but never forgot Price.

“I was mesmerized by this wonderful woman who knew everything about everything in her store and could give you the history behind every piece,” Eby said. “I remember her showing me how this George Jensen teapot was hand hammered from a flat piece of silver. I would sit there and listen to her for hours.”

Customer base ranged from R.E. Olds to blue-collar workers. Price served them all with equal attention. When lonely people came in just to talk, she talked with them.

Robert 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.

After Price retired, the business went downhill. A year later Don Price died. Liebermann’s closed in 1991. For the next 20 years, Price’s trunk jewelry shows were a fixture in Lasing. She often traveled alone, but her friend Joyce Banish went along on many jewelry safaris, looking for amber in Poland or silver in Mexico.

“They knew her everywhere,” Banish said. Price was in robust health as recently as a year ago, when Banish last visited her, although by then Price was having frequent memory lapses.

“She was all dressed up in purple,” Banish said. “We had lunch, went to the beauty shop and she looked terrific.”

She was walking up and down stairs — something she did at Liebermann’s many times a day — as recently as last month, Tom Price said. But after a series of infections and a fall, her condition worsened fast. She refused food and “checked out,” Price said. Hospice workers took care of her at home.

He said she filled her three years in Milwaukee with family time, reading and a new round of social conquests.

“She got to know the whole neighborhood,” Price said. “She was a fixture at block parties. No one could believe she was 99 years old.”

A memorial service at the Wharton Center will be announced soon.


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