Make us your home page
Instagram

Longtime dress shop owner, 90, retiring; store closing

TAMPA

Every cocktail dress and wedding gown, veil and tiara — everything is marked down for final sale as Helen Cabrera prepares to close her N Armenia Avenue dress shop.

Customers flock, but not just to shop. The reduced prices are certainly a draw, but they also come to thank the fashionable lady who has dressed them for special occasions for 43 years.

"I love beauty and elegance," says Cabrera, who turns 91 next month and is still in command. Since recovering from colon surgery two years ago, she has continued to work at her eponymous shop five days a week.

Many of the women she calls by name, sometimes remembering a gown they bought and when they wore it. When she doesn't recall a certain Latin American Fiesta princess or homecoming queen, daughter Lucille Turner likely does.

"I don't care who you were, how rich or poor, they all got the same service," says Turner, 74. "We didn't sell a dress that we didn't think looked good on you."

She laughs remembering how they would sometimes hide a gown so classmates couldn't buy the same dress. "We recorded the school and style number of every sale so that wouldn't happen."

Fittings were Cabrera's forte. She taught herself to sew on her mother's pedal machine during the Great Depression. Before long, she was making her own patterns and copying chic designs from newspaper ads.

"It's very important to know how to sew," Cabrera said. "To know the quality of a garment."

Originally in the 1970s and 1980s, casual wear was her mainstay.

"Until the discount stores started moving in," she said. Her solution, wedding attire and tuxedo rentals, offered one-stop shopping for the whole bridal party.

Business thrived for years.

"I had to give out numbers waiting for a dressing room," Cabrera said.

Now a liquidator is likely to buy the inventory remaining in the 3,500-square-foot shop. The Salvation Army already received a windfall of 50 wedding gowns.

Born Helen Mendez on Sept. 17, 1923, she is the youngest of five siblings. Her brother, the late Charles Mendez Sr., founded the C. E. Mendez Foundation, which supports drug and violence prevention programs.

She vividly recalls growing up in West Tampa without plumbing or electricity. Milk, cheese and butter came from the cow her mother milked. Vegetables, citrus and grapes were homegrown. Clothes were rarely store bought.

"I learned to sew making sheets and curtains from feed sacks that we boiled in a tub in the back yard," she said.

At 15, she eloped with her boyfriend, Plant High School basketball star Mario Cabrera. She dropped out of Hillsborough High School and raised their daughter while working a variety of jobs: seamstress, cigar bander and payroll clerk for her brother's trucking company, Redwing Carrier. She co-owned Two Sisters dress shop in 1957 with her sister, Lita Diaz, before building her own store.

Turner has worked alongside her mother since the boutique opened in 1971, while raising eight children — six girls and two boys — with her husband, Billy Turner, a longtime football coach for Chamberlain and Hillsborough high schools.

"All my granddaughters have worked here at one time or another, and three great-granddaughters," Cabrera said, adding wistfully that it has always been her wish to see one of the grandchildren take over the business. The girls loved to accompany her on buying trips in Miami, shopping with her while the boys played golf with her husband.

In retirement, she will continue to solve crossword puzzles, beat the computer at solitaire and Scrabble, and watch detective shows. She also hopes to paint the water lilies behind her Lake Magdalene home.

"I've been working since I was 17," she said. "I'm ready to stay home and relax. It's been a beautiful experience."

Contact Amy Scherzer at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

Helen Cabrera's dress shop is at 5110 N Armenia Ave. in Tampa.

Longtime dress shop owner, 90, retiring; store closing 08/21/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014 2:57pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trigaux: Florida's jobless rate looks great — but 25 other state rates look even better

    Economic Development

    No debate here: Florida's unemployment rate continues to drop — even as more people move to Florida and enter the workforce. What's not to like?

    Who remembers the remarkable lines of hundreds of people looking for construction work in Tampa back in March of 2010 at a job fair at the Encore construction site near downtown Tampa? Now the construction industry is struggling to find skilled workers to meet building demand. [
JOHN PENDYGRAFT | TIMES]
  2. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  3. Miami woman, 74, admits to voter fraud. Does jail await, or will she go free?

    State Roundup

    MIAMI — A 74-year-old woman pleaded guilty Monday to filling out other people's mail-in ballots while working at Miami-Dade's elections department.

    Gladys Coego
  4. Bigger ships carry Georgia ports to record cargo volumes

    Economic Development

    SAVANNAH, Ga. — Bigger ships arriving through an expanded Panama Canal pushed cargo volumes at Georgia's seaports to record levels in fiscal 2017, the Georgia Ports Authority announced Monday.

    The Port of Savannah moved a record 3.85 million container units in fiscal 2017, the state said, benefiting from the larger ships that can now pass through an expanded Panama Canal.
  5. Dragon ride in Harry Potter section of Universal closing for new themed ride

    Florida

    Universal Orlando announced Monday that it will close Dragon Challenge for a new "highly themed" Harry Potter ride to open in 2019 — sending wizard fans into a guessing game with hopes for a Floo Powder Network or the maze from the Triwizard Tournament.

    Universal Orlando announced Monday that it will close Dragon Challenge on Sept. 5 for a new "highly themed" Harry Potter ride to open in 2019. The ride, originally the Dueling Dragons roller coaster, was renamed and incorporated into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when the hugely popular area opened in 2010.