Liz McMurray, 87, opened Liz’s Alteration’s & Gifts, at 1810 E. Michigan Ave., on Lansing’s east side in 1978, 44 years ago. She has seen dozens of businesses come and go on the east side while serving her own loyal clientele and running a gift shop on the side.
Did you ever imagine you’d spend so much of your time sewing masks?
I’m making tons of masks lately, of course. I never dreamed of having to make a mask. This pandemic is really something. God is trying to get the attention of all the people. I never figured I would live to 2000, much less 2020.
You’ve come up with a lot of creative designs. Is it fun to make masks?
Oh yes. I have fun hemming a pair of pants. I love what I’m doing. I really do.
When did start sewing?
I’ve been sewing, and getting paid for my work, since I was 7 years old, and I’m 87 now. My mom and my great-aunt started me off, making quilts on a pedal sewing machine. I had 16 siblings, eight boys and eight girls, and I made clothes for all of them, out of flour sacks, clothes that people gave us — you name it, whatever material you could find, I could make something out of it. I got a blue ribbon at the county fair for a white apron made out of a sack of flour. I made a dress for my baby sister, a doll dress I copied out of a Sears catalog without a pattern. I was 14 then.
Where did you grow up?
We had a 100-acre farm in Arkansas with everything on it — cows, chickens, guinea hens. I built a bird trap. We caught birds and ate ‘em. I hated chopping cotton, plowing with a mule, but I did it. We’d go back and visit, but I’d never want to go back there and live.
How did you come to Lansing?
I had my own boutique shop in Sacramento, California, between 1965 and about 1970. I made dresses for ladies going to the president’s inauguration. My husband was stationed out there, and when he got discharged, I came back home to Lansing with him.
When I first came here, I got me a steady job going with my mother-in-law to clean up rich folks’ homes, all over, in Williamston, Mason, Eaton Rapids. I worked at just about every ladies’ store and men’s store in Lansing — Green’s, Knapp’s, Wisnick’s. You probably never heard of them. That was a cleaning business, and they did alterations too. I did my apprenticeship for men’s clothes at Holden Reid at 1600 E. Michigan. I learned how to do everything — shorten sleeves, turn a collar, shorten pants, take in a waist. The hardest part was putting in a zipper in men’s pants. It used to take me an hour, and now it takes me 10 minutes.
How did you get the shop at 1810 E. Michigan?
It was difficult. I went to every bank in Lansing to get a loan but they wouldn’t give it to me because I was single, female and African American. I divorced my husband, got the house that my husband and I had, and he went with this woman into her house. I had equity in the house, and I went to a high-risk bank called First National Bank of East Lansing, which loaned me the money.
The doctor that owned this place was my customer. He moved to another part of town. So I moved on up to the east side! I was the owner, the manager, the accountant, the janitor, I was everything. I moved into the back. It was a doctor’s house, really nice. It’s a big old house with a fireplace, five bathrooms, and I manage it all. The only commute I have is across the street, to Gabriels Credit Union.
Do you ever get lonely?
I get lonesome, but never lonely. I got Jesus, and that’s all that I need. I remarried, met a young man named James and got married in 1982, and he just passed away last year. That was a great help. Everybody comes in here and asks, ‘Aren’t you afraid to be in here by yourself in this big old place?’ No, I got a lot of hammers all through the house. I’ll hit you upside the head with a hammer. But I don’t even have to worry about that. I’ve been here all these years and nobody ever bothered me.
I wanted to tell you one thing, though.
Your photographer wanted me to come into his studio to take a photo, but I’m not coming. Either they take it here or I’m not coming. My shop, my business, identifies me, not somebody else. I want to be in my own environment.
(Khalid Ibrahim took the photo at the shop.)
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