Gazebo bra shop owner sells to 2 employees

After 38 years, founder passes lingerie store to 2 employees

  • Donna McNeight is one of the new co-owners of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop on Center Street in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING

  • JUDITH FINE

  • Gazebo founder Judith Fine talks about her ties to the community during an interview in one of the dressing rooms of the Northampton intimate apparel shop, adorned with some of the artwork she has collected over her 38 years in business. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Donna McNeight, left, and Amy Dickinson are the new co-owners of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop on Center Street in Northampton. On the back wall is a 1978 painting, “Ladies of the Night,” by Judith Fine’s friend Greg Stone, for which she modeled. Kevin Gutting

  • Amy Dickinson is one of the new co-owners of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop on Center Street in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING

  • After 38 years at the helm of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop on Center Street in Northampton, owner Judith Fine is retiring - or “rewiring”, as she puts it - and handing the reins to two employees, Amy Dickinson and Donna McNeight. KEVIN GUTTING

  • After 38 years at the helm, Gazebo owner Judith Fine, center, is retiring - or "rewiring", as she puts it - and handing the reins of the Northampton intimate apparel shop to two employees, Amy Dickinson, left, and Donna McNeight. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Donna McNeight is one of the new co-owners of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop on Center Street in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING

  • After 38 years at the helm of Gazebo, an intimate apparel shop in Northampton, owner Judith Fine is retiring - or "rewiring", as she puts it - and handing the reins to two employees, Amy Dickinson and Donna McNeight. KEVIN GUTTING

  • After 38 years at the helm, Gazebo owner Judith Fine, center, is handing the reins of the Northampton intimate apparel shop to two employees, Amy Dickinson, left, and Donna McNeight. KEVIN GUTTING

Gazette Staff
Published: 3/21/2016 3:05:54 PM

By DAN CROWLEY

Gazette Staff

NORTHAMPTON – After a 38-year run, business owner Judith Fine is handing over the reins of Gazebo on Center Street to two employees, marking the end of a remarkable retail career in the city’s downtown and what she anticipates will be a seamless transition in ownership.  

Described as a local icon who has tirelessly championed the city’s business scene, including as a city councilor, Fine is also well-known for her work raising awareness of breast cancer and supporting women with breast prostheses and post-mastectomy bras at her shop as well as across the state.   

“She is to the core, a downtown champion,” Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said. “There isn’t any part of her that doesn’t live and breathe downtown.”

Gazebo, which sells intimate apparel for women and primarily custom-fitted bras, was acquired Friday by employees Donna McNeight and Amy Dickinson. Fine sent an email blast to thousands of her customers shortly after midnight on Monday, thanking them for their support and alerting them to the news. Gazebo’s store manager of 35 years, Emma Dostal, is staying on. 

“It was crucial to me that they be the owners,” Fine, of Northampton, said in an interview at the store. “I know they are committed to carrying on what Gazebo has accomplished and make it better. Here comes Donna and Amy.” 

McNeight and Dickinson said they are excited to continue Gazebo’s long tradition of providing customized, professionally fitted bras and other apparel for women with a premium on customer service.

The store has specialized in providing breast prostheses and post-mastectomy bra fittings for more than two decades and prides itself on making a trip for a bra fitting a positive experience and less like a dreaded trip to the dentist, as Fine put it.  

“It’s such an important business,” McNeight, of Chesterfield, said. “It’s more than a store. It’s an important place to continue for the women we serve and the women that we are going to serve.”  

Dickinson, who worked for Fine in the ’90s and returned to Gazebo last year, said owning and running the store is everything she ever wanted in a job. 

“It was always my favorite place to work, part-time into full-time into business partner,” Dickinson, of Conway, said. “We love everything that it stands for.” 

After Fine’s email blast, one customer wrote back describing Gazebo as “an indelible part of downtown, an unmistakable beauty on the streets of Northampton.” 

“Thank you for your humor, your beautiful creations and all you have done to make Northampton feel like the lovely, small town it is,” the customer wrote. 

Store’s genesis

Fine started her business sharing a space with two other businesswomen in Thornes Marketplace in 1978. The fledgling shop was called More Country Roads, a take on a downtown store called Country Roads that one of the three women owned and that Fine used to frequent to buy old laces. 

At the time, she was making non-traditional wedding gowns, which she had begun in her home.  Her work evolved into creating one-of-a-kind pieces of lingerie and she moved to Gazebo’s current location at 16 Center St. a year and a half later. The storefront, which is a stone’s throw from the police station, had earlier been home to a former military recruiting center. 

“We stayed and needed to come up with a name,” Fine said, explaining that Gazebo sounded kind of old and Victorian at the time.   

Fine would go on to create her own label, Judith Fine Originals, custom clothing that she retailed and wholesaled. She hired local women to produce her clothing and in her first decade, Karen Westergaard  was the primary stitcher behind her designs. Today, the art-filled store sells merchandise from a variety of different vendors. 

“I’m ready to move on,” said Fine, who is 66, and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. “I’ve birthed Gazebo and it’s time to let it go. The philosophy of the store has always been to help women feel good about themselves.” 

Her husband, Doug Luce, a slate roofer by trade, retired last year, she said.  

Breast cancer awareness

As news spread through the city Monday after the change in ownership, many praised Fine for her decades of civic contributions and leadership, including for her work in raising awareness of and supporting women who have battled breast cancer. 

“In the lingerie world, she’s really known for her advocacy of women, particularly women in need and women who have suffered breast cancer,” Beck said. 

With the idea of store manager Emma Dostal, Fine founded the former Breast Form Fund in the 1990s, which was created to help women without health insurance buy a breast prosthesis or post-mastectomy bra. The fund drew support from many Northampton businesses and also through the sale of “Show Us Your Bra!” calendars and events.  

Fine had come up with the “Show Us Your Bra!” contest to raise additional money for the fund in which artists, or bratists as they were called, created bras as works of art. Those works were exhibited and sold with proceeds being donated to the fund, and later, depicted in calendars for sale.  

Fine said her efforts to raise awareness of breast cancer are  inspired in part by her own family’s experience and her connections to others who have battled breast cancer. 

“Every one of us knows somebody who has been affected by breast cancer,” she said. 

Civic involvement

Bob McGovern, who opened Packard’s bar on Masonic Street in 1977, a mere year before Fine got her start in Thornes Marketplace, described Fine as a downtown business “icon” and “pillar of the community,” who knows what it takes to keep a business running over decades. 

“She’s a strong lady,” McGovern said. “She had a good niche. She’s really done a great job there. Sad to see that she’s getting out.” 

In addition to her long run at Gazebo and work supporting breast cancer survivors, Fine spent two terms on the Northampton City Council and has served as past president of the city’s chamber of commerce and former Downtown Business Association, as well as on other charitable boards. 

“She’s really the model of an engaged citizen,” said former city mayor Clare Higgins, who served on the council with Fine in the 1990s as a new, younger wave of councilors swept into office. “Judith played a large role in working to have the city and the downtown business community collaborate.” 

Asked what she believes made Fine’s business successful for so many years, downtown retailer Cathy Cross, who is a close friend, pointed to Fine’s hard work, excellent customer service and willingness to get involved with the community and change with the times. 

“You become part of the community,” said Cross, who owns and has run the women’s clothing store Cathy Cross on Main Street since 1983. “That plays off your business and your business success.” 

“Huge shoes to fill,” Cross said of Fine’s departure from downtown. “I will miss her being part of my retail life, but the friendship will continue. We’ll all miss Judith so much for all she does downtown. She’s just been the number one mover and shaker for 25, 30 years.” 

Fine said she has been blessed to work with some “incredible” saleswomen at Gazebo over the years, and is confident McNeight and Dickinson will take the store to a new level. For starters, the new owners said they plan to have a greater presence on social media and are looking to expand into bra size swimwear where they have recognized a need. 

Apart from that, there is little they plan to change, McNeight, a six-year employee, said. 

“The core of this store is customer service and there’s no one better at it than Judith and Emma,” McNeight said. “There’s nothing we really need to do to change. All we need to do is add.” 

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

  




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