Helen Cabrera has a decision to make. She could continue to open the doors of the Armenia Avenue dress shop that bears her name — or shutter the business for good.
It's a choice some 40 years in the making.
"I'm tired," said Cabrera, who opened the shop in 1971. "If I had more work and the business was great like it used to be, then I would stay open forever."
What makes the decision so wrenching is that she knows the shop will likely die with her. Cabrera is 88, and her family has no desire to keep the business going.
"There's no passing the baton," her daughter Lucille Turner said. "The day she is not here is because the store is not here."
Born and raised in West Tampa, Cabrera began her love affair with clothing as a little girl. Her mother, a factory-worker-turned-homemaker, used to make clothes, sheets and curtains out of bleached cow feed sacks.
"We used to learn how to pull threads, sew and make pretty stitches on them for the curtains," Cabrera said.
Her mother's attention to sewing was born of necessity. The family was poor, Cabrera said. Reared during the Great Depression, she remembers a life without bath tubs, toilets or lights.
The family lived in a small home in West Tampa and made the best out of what they had. He father held several jobs, at times making cigars and chocolate and roasting coffee, she said.
"My father had a cow, and my mother used to milk the cows early in the morning and we had our own milk, our own butter and our own cheese," Cabrera said. "We never lacked for anything during the Depression."
Cabrera met her husband, Mario, when she was 13 and married him when she was 15. At age 16, Cabrera had her daughter, Lucille.
Cabrera worked in cigar factories, and later she kept the books for her brother's trucking business. Eventually, she went into business with her sister, opening a dress shop, Two Sisters. She worked in the store for 12 years before selling her interest in the business. Cabrera used her profits to purchase the land on Armenia Avenue that would later become home to her dress shop.
When the store opened in 1971, it was one of the only dress shops in the West Tampa area, Cabrera said. Over the years, it would become the go-to place for generations of Latino women looking for wedding gowns, mother-of-the-bride dresses or for a special quinceanera or debutante gown. "It was me here and Maas Brothers downtown," Cabrera said. Business was so brisk, Cabrera said, that she paid off the mortgage on the building the third year after she opened the shop.
In its heyday, the dress shop had a full staff. Now, it's just Cabrera, her daughter and occasionally a granddaughter.
Stepping into the dress shop is a bit like going back in time. The baby blue and white building sits off of the roaring Armenia Avenue. In its windows, sun-aged mannequins pose wearing dazzling evening gowns and wedding dresses. Inside, a colorful collection of regal gowns hang from custom-made display furniture, which dates to the store's opening four decades ago.
The scent of Cabrera's perfume lingers softly in the air. From her perch behind a counter, she holds court, surrounded by what has become important in her life: fabric swatches and a dizzying array of pictures of her family.
For years, she walked the showroom and stitched intricate beadwork on gowns. Now, arthritis hinders her. She deals with vendors, welcomes customers and directs her daughter on how to stitch and bead.
These days Cabrera speaks of indulging a passion outside of the clothing business.
"I like to paint," she said. "I do crossword puzzles and puzzles. I had one puzzle that was 15,000 pieces."
Still, she can't quite seem to walk away.
One day when she decides she can let go of the sequins, beads, chiffon and tulle, she will turn off the lights for good.