Downtown Grass Valley clothing store to close after 30 years
Special to The Union
The woman who helps influence Grass Valley’s future will no longer help influence women’s fashion here.
After 30 years in business, Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout is closing Mill Street Clothing Co.
“I’m ready to move on,” said Swarthout.
She opened her store Sept. 5, 1989. The Nevada Union High School and CSU Chico graduate had recently moved back to Grass Valley after working in the Bay Area as a hotel marketing and reservations specialist with Hyatt and jewelry department manager with Nordstrom.
“I was tired of the city, and I wanted to move home and open my own business,” said Swarthout.
With start-up capital from her father, who then owned Stucki Jewelers, Swarthout opened Mill Street Clothing at 143 Mill Street.
“I looked around and thought the downtown could use another women’s clothing store,” Swarthout said. “Next, I analyzed what people were wearing. Locals favored casual attire: jeans, sweatshirts, and sweaters, what I call ‘Nevada County Wear.’
“Going into it, I didn’t know anything about retail clothing. I taught myself and relied on my instincts. Luckily, I was right and ran a successful business for 30 years.”
As all small business owners do, Swarthout experienced upturns and downturns. Her store survived thanks to her business acumen. For example, during the recession of the early 1990s, Swarthout weathered the tough times by renting part of her retail space to a lingerie shop and a shoe store.
“When you own a small business, you do everything,” Swarthout said. “Buying, payroll, waiting on customers, sweeping sidewalks and cleaning bathrooms. Retail is hard because you work holidays and weekends.”
In 1999, a hefty rent increase sent Swarthout looking for options. A large retail space at 117 Mill Street was vacant (Breuer’s), and the owner planned to divide it (now Tess’ Kitchen Store and Mill Street Clothing). Swarthout jumped at the chance to move down the block and increase the size of her clothing store from 1,200 square feet to 3,000 square feet.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Swarthout said. “It’s the nature of the clothing business that the more inventory you have, the more you sell.”
Swarthout’s entrepreneurial spirit saw her dabble in men’s clothing and other opportunities until she settled into her niche of offering the broad selection of women’s wear that has made her store a local favorite.
Reflecting on her career, Swarthout said it was sometimes difficult to give her customers what they wanted.
“It may sound hard to believe, but sometimes manufacturers design ugly clothes,” said Swarthout. “For example, they might use ugly colors, or add ruffles, bows and ties. People hate those. My customers came to us because we carried quality clothing that could be worn for years, clothing with long-lasting value versus short-lived styles.”
Swarthout also responded to the needs of the community’s social scene, such as stocking racks of white clothing prior to the annual Starry, Starry Nights summer fundraiser.
Now in her mid-fifties, Swarthout said she’s ready to retire.
“Retail has changed a lot,” she said. “There is more competition from discount chains, and many manufacturers sell directly to consumers online. It can be hard for small, independent retailers to compete.”
Mill Street Clothing will close Thursday so Swarthout and her staff can ready the store for a liquidation sale that begins Friday at 10 a.m. She hopes to sell all her merchandise, fixtures, and displays by the end of July.
“I will miss my customers very much,” said Swarthout. “The hardest part is disappointing those people who have shopped with me all of the 30 years that I’ve been in business. I’ll also miss my staff. My general manager, Chris Adams, has worked with me for 23 years. She’s been my rock.”
Swarthout’s second term as mayor ends December 2020, marking 16 years on the city council. She said she will continue what she calls her “civic duties,” including volunteering with the Grass Valley Downtown Association, serving as chair-elect of the Nevada County Economic Resource Council, and working on one of the League of California Cities’ policy committees.
Swarthout also plans to spend more time with her family, which consists of her husband, father, stepmother and brother. Traveling with friends is also on her agenda, as is continuing to support local nonprofits.
“I appreciate the work they do and I’m proud to have sponsored many of their events over the years,” said Swarthout.
She remains a supporter of The Friendship Club decades after she was a founding board member in 1995. She’s a generous donor to the Center for the Arts and Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Foundation.
The respect is mutual; Mill Street Clothing was named the hospital foundation’s Business of the Year in 2016.
“The legacy of Mill Street Clothing will live on,” Swarthout said with a smile. “I donated to the Center for the Arts’ Capital Campaign and bought the naming rights for the new ladies’ restroom at the renovated Center. My store will no longer be here, but my logo will be and hopefully it will evoke fond memories.”
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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