I first stepped foot inside a Windsor Button when I was about eight years old. Whenever she took us to the Assembly Square Mall, my babysitter L. would spend interminable hours flipping through fabric and looking at trims. My younger brother and I would slump over in one of the folding chairs at the back of the airless, mauve-and-teal colored retail tomb, waiting for her to buy her interfacing so we could go somewhere more exciting. (The cycle would be reversed in the Japanese toy store across the way, as I lingered over scented erasers and L. pointedly looked at her watch.)
This peculiar little store never would have crossed my mind again were it not for the knitting boom of the mid-oughties. When I started seeking out yarn, I sought out Windsor without a second thought. It was intuitive, like when I figured out that the local UHF stations showed Bugs Bunny cartoons after school. True to my memories of the place, the flagship – and at that point, the only remaining – store in the chain was a florescent-lit, pegboarded retail destination of yore, its aisles lined with blister packs of underwear elastic and shiny cellophane envelopes of twill tape. A short blonde girl in a sweater made from green-and-yellow variegated yarn stood by the register, pricing incoming merchandise. Joni Mitchell’s disembodied voice crooned from a radio somewhere at the front of the store.
I walked up the center aisle and took a hard right. There it was: Yarnia. All kinds of pretty string lined the aisle, hanging from the walls in plump hanks or overstuffed in plastic bins. I was a new knitter and felt kind of overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic selection, but I knew well enough to walk past the bins of Red Heart and gaze longingly upon the cashmere. After what seemed like ten minutes but was probably close to an hour, I emerged with some skeins of Cascade 220 under my arm. Another clerk in the back rung me in and helped me to wind the yarn. “Cashmere is soft and fluffy,” she noted, an audible shrug in her voice.
Over the years, I amassed a reasonable stash from Windsor. I’d stop by and pick up some skeins of yarn and some notions for my swap packages, and I’d look forward to the annual Columbus Day sale (all fibers 20% off!). Though Woolcott & Company was more convenient, Windsor had a wider variety of yarns that fit my budget, and they became my go-to LYS.
A few months after I started school in 2009, I found out that Windsor Button was hiring. My impromptu job interview broke all the rules: I wore dungarees, the store owner started by asking me if a certain hourly wage was acceptable, and I wound a skein into a cake of yarn while we talked. That night I emailed her to thank her for her time and she offered me the position.
I lasted there for about two and a half years, which almost matched my time at school. For about fifteen to twenty hours a week, I priced merchandise, stocked shelves, rang in customers, located buttons, prevented teenagers from eating in the store, and fondled yarn. Working around such an incredible array of fibers inspired me to try some knitting skills that had previously intimidated me…if only so I could pass my knowledge onto my customers. Some days I felt like a bartender, offering up advice as I helped the customers.
For the most part, we had a great core of customers. Two great local designers, Ann Weaver and Kathy Grumperina, shopped at the store and would show us finished objects they’d designed. Crafters and costume designers from all over the country came through our doors looking for the best yarns, buttons, or trims. For the most part I greeted all comers with a wave and a smile, which earned me the sobriquet “Mary Sunshine Sparklepants” on a nasty Yelp review.
A small minority of customers behaved in a disruptive manner, though, and others find these stories the most entertaining. There was the elderly woman who’d hip-check other customers at the button trough (and who called me a “racist cunt” for asking her not to make physical contact with others while she was at the store). There was the middle-aged lady who looked like Gary Busey in drag and made frequent proclamations in a megaphone voice, and there were the women who saw our store as their only social outlet. And, of course, there was Hortense.
For the most part, my coworkers were a great group of people. Stanley, the co-owner, had a buoyant attitude and a great sense of humor that kept our spirits up on the long days, and Chanda’s understated sense of humor and healthy perspective helped me when I started to feel ground down. My various coworkers – most notably Ariel and Melissa, with whom I worked the longest – were great company. Though I admire Susan’s tenacity and her work ethic, I have to say that she and I rarely saw eye-to-eye, which sometimes made work more stressful than it should have been.
My goal when I took the job at Windsor was to work someplace for at least a year. In the months after my two-year anniversary I started to feel burned out, and when I saw my schoolwork for the weeks before I graduated I knew I had to pay full attention to my studies. After I quit, I still went in every few months to visit my friends and wind yarn.
Rumors that Windsor had lost their lease had been going around since at least December, so news that the store was closing were not a huge surprise. When Stanley and Susan sent out a mailing with this news, it did come as a shock. My concern was with where my coworkers would land after the store sold the last skein of yarn.
When I worked at Windsor, being a small thread in the fabric of Boston history filled me with great pride. I cherished the stories Stanley told us about the store in its earlier days and loved hearing from people who remembered trips to Jordan Marsh, visits to the joke shop down the street from us, and decadent sundaes at Swensen’s on Bromfield Street. As I walked the aisles of the store during the liquidation sale, it occurred to me that now Windsor was part of that Boston history.