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Peddling clothes: Marguerite's legacy draws to a close in downtown Sibley

Former owner Marguerite Bothof and current owner Amy Van Marel are shown in Marguerite's clothing store downtown Sibley.

SIBLEY, Iowa -- "You don't see ads for girdles anymore."

That is Marguerite Bothof's first observation as she looks over several decades' worth of clippings of advertisements for the store that bears her name.

"Now they're called Spanx," noted longtime employee Teresa Beving with a laugh.

Bothof saw a lot of changes in women's fashions during her lengthy career in the retail clothing business -- more than 50 years. She owned and operated Marguerite's women's shop in Sibley for 31 years, before selling it to her niece, Amy Van Marel. Bothof's sales career began just down the road in her hometown of Sheldon, Iowa.

"I started at the five and dime -- the dime store," she recalled. "Then I went to the Grey Shop, then to Wolff's."

At the Wolff's department store in Sheldon, she became the buyer of the women's clothing lines, traveling to the Twin Cities via train to select the merchandise. Eventually, she decided to go into business for herself in 1961.

"I had kind of been looking, and then this building was empty," she said, referring to the storefront on Sibley's main street -- a former grocery --where she set up her shop. "It's always been in the same building. I always felt like I had the best location, right on the corner."

Bothof saw a need to provide stylish fashions for the women of northwest Iowa and the surrounding region.

"What I wanted to do was to have something for everyone, a wide range of sizes and everything from swimsuits to coats."

And yes, girdles and hosiery and other ladies undergarments were part of the retail mix back then, along with hats.

"We had a hat bar," recalled Bothof. "Then when hat season was over, we put sweaters in there.

"I used to drive to Minneapolis to buy the hats," she continued. "I'd leave early in the morning and get there by 9 o'clock so I could go over to First Avenue to get first pick of the hats. I'd fly in from Worthington in the winter. Then when Easter would roll around, the salesman would come down from Minneapolis with the hats so I could pick them out."

"If you bought a new Easter dress, you bought a hat to go with it," chimed in Van Marel about the fashions during the store's early days.

"Or you just bought a new hat," said Bothof. "Easter was always a busy time in ready-to-wear. We also carried gloves and handkerchiefs back then.

"Hats were a hard thing to buy," she added. "Not everybody could put on a hat and look good in it. This one woman I used to see at market tried on every hat and said it had to look good on her before she'd buy it. Hats never looked good on me."

Although she's been out of the business now for 20 years, Bothof can still recite many of name brands of the clothes she carried -- some now defunct.

"We had dresses for $5.98 -- Kay Whitney dresses. You could zip them up, and they had pockets," she described what was commonly known as a housedress. "We were always amused when you'd see women wearing rhinestone necklaces with them. Now they have rhinestones on jeans, but at the time, rhinestones were really dressy."

Perhaps the biggest revolution in women's clothing Bothof witnessed was the arrival of pants. When she first got started in fashion, a woman wouldn't have thought about wearing pants out in public.

"We didn't have pants, and when they came in, it was hard to get them on the women," Bothof recalled. "You had to talk and talk to get them to try them on. But once they did, you couldn't get them off. It took me a long time to wear a pantsuit here."

"You always said, 'If you're going to be dressed up, you should wear a dress,'" Van Marel reminded her aunt.

Once pants caught on, shorter versions came into vogue.

"We called it the pedal pusher," Bothof said. "We sold lots of pedal pushers, then they died down. Now they're back, but they're called capris and crop pants."

Short skirt lengths were another fashion revelation.

"Miniskirts were not my cup of tea, but I sold them," Bothof said. "Every year, we shortened the hems up by an inch until it got up to the miniskirt."

"They used to say that skirt lengths went up and down like the stock market," said Van Marel.

No matter the fashion trend, Bothof wanted all her customers to leave her store feeling satisfied and looking their best.

"My aim was to help the customer and get her an outfit she liked that was comfortable and she would enjoy wearing," she said. "If she was happy, I was happy."

With 51 years of retail experience under her belt, Bothof decided to retire and sold the business to Van Marel, who had studied marketing, textiles and clothing in Mankato.

"I worked in Rochester for a year before I came back here," Van Marel said.

"She wasn't really a city girl," inserted Bothoff.

"I was looking for a job, and Marguerite said she'd employ me," continued Van Marel, who consequently met her husband and stayed put in northwest Iowa. "I worked for her for four years, then I bought the store. But just 38 days after I bought it, they had the fire next door, and we lost all our inventory -- smoke damage. We lost every piece of merchandise we had. Even the cards on the earrings smelled. That was March of 1992. That was probably my biggest learning experience."

Van Marel had set up business in another building for a few months while the smoke damage was fixed, but moved back in the following fall. Since then, she's operated the store without major incident and also owns Mr. B's and Lady B's in Sheldon. She recently made the decision to close Marguerite's in Sibley and concentrate her efforts on the Sheldon enterprises. An inventory-clearing sale will continue for a couple more weeks.

"It was a really hard decision," Van Marel said. "I love my customers in Sheldon. I love the store, love the area."

Marguerite's is a retail legacy that both Bothof and Van Marel are reluctant to relinquish, but they realize that times have changed, and the retail climate isn't what it once was, although the store still fills a niche.

"We cater to an older clientele that wants service," said Van Marel. "They want someone to help them find outfits, pin things up, do alterations."

Running a retail enterprise has both its perks and challenges, the two women noted. They both enjoy being at the forefront of the fashion trends.

"I liked the business because you had a couple of changes -- two times a year the whole store changes with the seasons," reflected Bothof.

Dealing with the buying, advertising and financial ups and downs were some of the more challenging aspects of the business. But both women agree that the best part of Marguerite's was its customers, who come from throughout the region.

"The people are the best," stated Bothof without a moment's hesitation. "Marguerite's was always my pride and joy. I liked the people, and they were good to me."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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