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For Seniors : LINDA FELDMAN : Loosening the Business Ties That Bind

March 13, 1994

Barbara Williams describes herself as old-fashioned and in the next breath says, "In a way I'm not." For the thousands of Los Angeles men who have relied on her opinion, it's not an issue: When Barbara Williams makes a tie selection, her customers usually follow her advice.

Williams has run the family tie business, Barbara Williams Cravats, from the same Farmers Market location for the past 38 years. This year she took what might be the first step toward closing the business: For the first time, she hasn't reordered her signature labels.

If she does close up shop, the move will mark the end of a century-old family business. The Williams family was originally from Youngstown, Ohio. There, her father owned a tie shop. Then the family moved to Los Angeles--and operated three tie stores.

"My father and two older brothers died within a year of each other. They owned two shops. I was in my 20s running a (third) shop, which my father backed me in at the time. My brother's wives were housewives with children, so I was automatically at the helm of all three stores--paid the bills, bought merchandise. I was the (chief financial officer). I was it," she said.

Eventually, one store, at the Disneyland Hotel, closed. A second, managed by a sister-in-law who no longer wanted to continue in business, also closed.

Although Williams expanded her shop to include merchandise other than ties, she keeps the family business and values alive.

"I have this feeling that I'm watched over. I feel the presence of my father," she said. "I had a big laugh the other day when I found a box of wide ties from the late '40s. I gave some away to nephews and I put a couple of them out on display. They sold for $10 in those days. And I sold them for $30. Well, I just couldn't help but think my father was saying, 'Good girl'. . . . That happens a lot."

Williams never married, she says, because she didn't think it was fair to blame the business whenever anything went wrong in her personal life. She also took care of her mother. But she is a proud aunt to 34 nieces and nephews in a close family that has experienced many tragedies. Her strength comes from her faith in the Lord, who, she says, has always come through for her in times of need.

So how does a girl from Youngstown survive in the big city? How does she make a living surrounded by giant department stores displaying ties that look more like wallpaper than neckwear?

"I don't like today's fashion. I like tradition. I go by instinct, not fads," she said. "I'm not that square. I have striped dress shirts and ties with Marilyn Monroe on them, but my niche is understated dressing."

Williams refuses to divulge the names of famous men from all over the world who have come to her shop, or the generations of ordinary families who are her loyal customers. She believes they come because of what her father taught her: Buy quality, never judge a customer by the way he's dressed, and--the cardinal rule--always be kind.

As for how she successfully sells ties to men, she says she gives them choices and they ask her which one she likes. She picks it and they buy it.

Williams works seven days a week. Even the Northridge earthquake failed to interrupt her work schedule--Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Sunday from 10 to 5.

But recently she's been thinking about making a change.

"There comes a time, and I don't know if it's now, but I do feel like I'd like to spend more time with family. I have mixed emotions. No one in the family wants to take over the business. My sister Sidna introduced me to antiquing. Maybe we would open an antique shop in some out-of-the-way place; people always find you if you have something special, and it would be a fun excuse to go to New England or Europe buying. I'm thinking about it."

So Barbara Williams Cravats may close down one of these days. But it's doubtful the spirit that drives Barbara Williams will ever lose steam.

"I love hard work," she said. "Maybe I'm a fool, but the harder I work the happier I am. If I don't earn my salt every day, I'm not happy."

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