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A South Coast Plaza Nordstrom legend hangs up her name tag

Beloved concierge Yvonne Dutton, 81, is retiring today as the store's oldest employee.

January 15, 2008|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Yvonne Dutton's life was saved by a department store.

When she was raising eight children on a meager budget supplemented by food stamps, the Huntington Beach woman didn't have the time or money to shop at Nordstrom. And things got even worse when her 37-year marriage ended in divorce.

It was a time when most of her peers were contemplating their leisure years, yet Dutton found herself looking for a new career at age 60. It wasn't long before she found Nordstrom.

Now, 21 years later, Dutton has reached another turning point. After becoming Nordstrom's oldest and best-loved concierge at the posh South Coast Plaza store in Costa Mesa, she will retire today at age 81.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 17, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Nordstrom concierge: A photo caption with an article about retiring Nordstrom concierge Yvonne Dutton in some editions of Tuesday's California section identified a woman with Dutton as a customer. She is Cherie Matilla, a fellow employee at the Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza.

"Yvonne will be missed," said Scott Colunga, assistant manager at Nordstrom. "Her [presence] speaks to people. We have customers who grew up with Yvonne; when she's on vacation, they ask where she is."

Dutton's career with the department store, where one of her daughters had worked, began at the cosmetics counter. Quickly, though, managers noticed her public-service orientation and assigned her to the store's concierge desk, which was just then being formed.

One of her first jobs, she says, was to help organize buses to transport would-be Nordstrom shoppers, mostly women, from such far-flung communities as Palm Springs, Apple Valley and Victorville.

"In those days they really didn't have any shopping out there," she says. "They all wanted to come to our store."

Dutton would oblige them by rising at 5 a.m. for two-hour rides to the desert where she would treat everyone to breakfast before packing them in. "The first time we did it," she recalls, "the town was so impressed that even the City Council members came out to say goodbye."

Eventually, as more stores opened, "we had to stop because we realized that we were passing other Nordstroms to bring them here."

Now, Dutton says, she presides over a desk near the store's main entrance where, among other things, she accepts payments, sells gift cards, lends out strollers, answers questions, offers directions and answers the phone.

"Our main thing," Dutton summarizes, "is to be there for the customers and do anything they ask."

One woman called asking for large safety pins, the type used to fasten Scottish kilts. Dutton took her phone number, checked the yellow pages and steered her toward another store. Less successful, however, was her effort to help the man seeking Velcro tennis shoes. "Sometimes you wonder why they call Nordstrom," she muses. Those shoes "were already on the way out."

On occasion, Dutton's services became more personal. Once, she recalls, she offered comfort to a customer whose daughter had just died. And later, when the same woman was having marital problems, "I told her to look within herself," Dutton said.

"One of the reasons I wanted to work in customer service," Dutton says, "is to help people, especially older women. My message to them, and to married mothers, is that they have lots to offer and it's never too late to make a change."

Dutton celebrated her 79th birthday by riding in a hot-air balloon. She backed out of last year's plan to go sky-diving. And she decided to retire this year, she says, to spend more time with 10 grandchildren. "I've done what I need to do at Nordstrom," Dutton says.

She plans to continue her regimen of exercising at 4:30 a.m. She also expects "to start taking piano lessons again, go back to my Bible study and whatever else comes."

On her penultimate day at work, however, she was doing that for which she's best known: helping customers.

"She was very polite, very nice and very complimentary," said Maxine Preston, 83, who was in the store to pay a bill. "She complimented my matching blouse and earrings. Now I'm feeling good about myself for the rest of the day."

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david.haldane@latimes.com

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