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Baltimore just lost a retailing legend

From left, Merle Ann and Stan Siegelman look through items at Cindy Marcoline's booth at the Mount Washington Village Fall Block Party.
From left, Merle Ann and Stan Siegelman look through items at Cindy Marcoline's booth at the Mount Washington Village Fall Block Party. (Photo by Jon Sham)

Monday night I learned Elsie Fergusson, my first and most important style icon/past employer/mentor/sometimes (in my own head) tormentor was in the ICU and fading fast. I awoke a few hours later at 1:06 a.m., heartsick that she would exit this life in a drab hospital gown. I heard she passed right about then. Of course there is another side, though I don't know why she needed to go there a day before her store's 50th birthday.

I was in high school in 1975 when I found Something Else, a store unlike any I had ever seen (who had?) and encountered Elsie, with whom I became immediately fascinated (who wasn't?). Truth be told, I was also somewhat intimidated by her edge and her opinions, but the lure of her exotic shop proved irresistible, and I become a frequent customer, absorbing and merging Elsie's aesthetic with my own to forge one that has remained remarkably true, judging by a closet crammed with regularly-worn things bought as long as 40 years ago. I still regard getting dressed in the morning as the creative highlight of my day (even when events dictate a business suit). At Something Else I discovered Frida Kahlo and her style, Victorian whites, tuxedo scarves, Guatemalan huipil, Mexican souvenir jackets, Japanese field clothing and kimono, Bakelite jewelry, Taxco silver, etc., etc. I learned that more really is more and that my more and Elsie's version could differ and that was OK.

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At three decades my senior, Elsie became my first older friend, sort of significant when one is barely over 20. She had the most fascinating friends and employees and to any party she brought the best presents and was, in my mind, the best-dressed — or some might say, the most-dressed. I admit to worrying just a little that her attire would overshadow my Edwardian linen day dress wedding gown. It didn't, though my photographer couldn't resist pointing his camera at her, and so she reigned as the most photo-documented guest. I think I own the purse she wore that day. I wish I owned all those Bakelite cherries.

She hired me after I finished graduate school and I was truly flattered that she must have considered me a good ambassador for her brand. I still tell stories of some of the craziest days in her shop and all of it was great training for the store I opened and operated for 13 years. Elsie checked it out only once, unannounced, not long after I opened. She didn't say so, but I think she was proud of me.

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I don't think I had seen her in a decade until last February, after working up the nerve to ask if she would be interested in carrying my smalltimores jewelry. I never felt so validated as when she bought a bunch, but, fearing rejection, never checked back about a re-stock. Forty-five years, but in my head it was still a teacher/student dynamic. I still craved her approval and feared any frost in her voice. It took until the day she passed for me to truly contemplate how I, too, may intimidate people with my edge and my opinions. It's not intentional and it probably wasn't for Elsie, either. And should any woman have to apologize for such things?

I never stopped harboring dreams of buying her store if she ever retired. I am sorry that I didn't get to tell her about my two very recent everything-Frida-and-Diego trips to Mexico City. I am sad that I was only in her amazing house twice and that she never saw my Bolton Hill house or my condo. Most of all, I am heavy-hearted that I never thanked her in any articulate way for being who she was and for helping me to be me. Rest in peace, Elsie. I will chose today's outfit in your honor.

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, Baltimore

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