Louise Hornsby has been selling upscale clothing to Tallahassee women for 43 yearsRetail RoyaltyOctogenarian Louise Hornsby has Dressed Tallahassee’s Women for 43 Years
By Elizabeth Goldsmith
Styles change, stores change and customers change, but through it all stands Louise Hornsby, “Bridge Department” associate at Dillard’s in the Governor’s Square mall. The 85-year-old super saleswoman has been on her feet selling upscale women’s clothing in Tallahassee for more than 43 years.
Anyone who has worked retail knows that it is brutal on the legs and feet, but “Miss Louise,” as her colleagues call her, claims her ability to stand on her feet for so long comes from playing sports in high school.
“You name a sport, I did it,” she said.
Born in Ringgold, Ga., Hornsby is descended from a “long line of merchandisers,” from her dad to her dad’s great uncle, who co-founded the Miller Department Store in Chattanooga, Tenn. (which eventually became Hess, then Proffitts). She credits her love of retail to her family and to the managers, buyers and customers she has worked with over the years.
Hornsby’s road to Tallahassee started when her family rented a vacation house in Clearwater, from the Hornsby family. Her sister insisted that Louise meet Ed Hornsby. The rest, as they say, is history. Ed, an assistant state auditor, and Louise married and moved to Tallahassee in 1943 and raised two children. Daughter Karen Love works at Capital City Bank. The sales gene apparently was passed on to son Craig Hornsby. He owns the Infinity Dealership in Tallahassee, as well as the Nissan and Honda dealerships in Thomasville, Ga.
When her children were young, Louise Hornsby was a Girl Scout leader and did all sorts of volunteer work, but when the children were in high school, she took her first job with Nic’s Toggery as buyer and manager of the ladies department. She said she loved the Gavalas family, who owned the store (and still do). George Gavalas keeps up with her, saying fondly, “She is great at what she does.”
Hornsby said a woman at work wasn’t so unusual that long ago.
“No, when the children were older, a lot of women were working,” she recalled.
After three years at Nic’s, Gayfers manager Don Smith convinced her to move over to his store.
“I started the designer department with six dresses,” Hornsby said. Gayfers was located in Tallahassee Mall in the space most recently occupied by Dillard’s.
Hornsby has wonderful memories of her 30 years at Gayfers – from putting on fashion shows to going on buying trips to New York City and California. A letter dated Aug. 5, 1987, from James C. Lovell of Ernst Strauss applauds her for selling $46,000 worth of ultra suede during a two-day trunk sale in July 1987. “A tremendous amount of credit belongs to Louise Hornsby, Designer Shop Manager in Tallahassee,” Lovell wrote. “She continually does an outstanding job of building customers, keeping personal files and contacting them for special events.”
Her fashion shows, which typically drew 200 to 300 ladies, were legendary. Customers and friends from Perry, Thomasville, Quincy and Madison helped her create extensive lists of women to invite. Hornsby recalls one customer who sat down right on the spot in Gayfers and wrote out 50 names, phone numbers and addresses. Hornsby went to Publix and used her own money to purchase refreshments for the first one: cheese straws, pastries and drinks. Each show supported a charity, so a basket was passed around for donations.
A favorite buying trip was to St. John Knits in California.
“We were treated like royalty,” Hornsby said. “Picked up at the airport, driven to the hotel for a luncheon and fashion show, where we saw everything they were making, out to dinner, back to the hotel, more the next day and then back to the airport.” She also used to travel with Florida State University merchandising students to New York City and hired many of the program’s graduates.
Hornsby remembers that it wasn’t unusual for her to sell $5,000 in merchandise a day. She moved to Dillard’s about 10 years ago. Dillard’s carries upscale knit brands such as Misook, “which is an acrylic knit woven to breathe,” and San Remo knits.
Hornsby notes one difference between the old days when she worked at Gayfers and the present: “If I sold one size, I could go to the back storeroom and get another in the same size,” Hornsby said. “These days, it is not like that. If it is sold, it is gone.” There still is a lot of excitement, though.
“A few days ago, I sold $2,200 worth of separates to a South Florida lobbyist,” she said. “She tried on a jacket which I thought would look terrible on her, but it looked fabulous. That goes to show, don’t reject anything outright, try it on.”
Looking back, Hornsby remembers her youth in Chattanooga, when hats and gloves were required, and later, when everyone dressed up for FSU football games. Her dream was to open her own clothing store where Chico’s now is located on Market Street, featuring St. John Knits, but that plan changed when Ed Hornsby became ill and passed away in 2006.
The Dillard’s store manager was at the service and encouraged her to come back, even for a few hours a week, as soon as she was ready. Hornsby was deeply touched and said going to work gets her up in the morning.
“For years, local fashion icons relied on Louise Hornsby’s advice and salon-level service to help them prepare for every social occasion,” said Dillard’s store manager Sharon Lovett.
“She has developed a clientele that has followed her faithfully with the knowledge of the community, her willingness to go that extra mile to please her clients, and her innate sense of style. We like to think of Louise as Tallahassee retail royalty.” Lovett said she wishes she had more associates like Hornsby because what she does “is almost becoming a lost art.”
One of those satisfied customers is Beth Switzer, program director and on-air interviewer at WFSU-TV, who has been shopping with Hornsby for more than three decades.
“In an era when customer service is all too often ignored or undervalued, Mrs. Hornsby has made it a passion, an art,” Switzer said. “She truly gets to know her customers – as consumers and as individuals. Short story: She really cares. She is an amazing human.”
When asked why women enjoy shopping for clothes so much, Hornsby smiled, saying they get “an uplift feeling – it does something.” One woman shopper said to her, “I don’t need this,” to which Hornsby replied, “If it makes you happy, better to spend the money on that than for medicine.”
Her interview concluded, Hornsby walked through her department, stopping in front of a shiny jacket by Misook and asked, with a twinkle in her eye, “Have you thought about blue?”