Deolinda Grasso spends all day Monday through Friday and most of Saturday in her tailoring shop in downtown Clearwater. Here, the gregarious native of Portugal has managed to turn a small workspace, teeming with the tools of her trade, into a place filled with the chatter and laughter of a stream of clients and friends.
The alterations and fittings are only part of the picture. Grasso says the people themselves are the best part of the job.
"I mostly deal with people when they are happy," she said. "They come to me when they are getting married or going to a prom, or when they buy new clothes."
One recent morning she held up an Air Force uniform, newly altered, the front of the jacket emblazoned with rows of medals. It belonged to an 85-year-old customer.
"Even when they die, I dress them," she said of her customer, who plans one day to be buried in his uniform.
The crammed shop allows just enough room for people to navigate around the racks of puffy gowns and other formal attire that Grasso calls her "boutique." On display are ready-made items to rent or buy, including bridal gowns, prom dresses and dressy clothing for special events.
Grasso, 55, does a brisk walk-in business, but requests appointments for the time-consuming fitting of bridal gowns.
Supplies are everywhere. On one wall of the shop, spools of thread in all sizes and colors are arranged on tilted racks. Tables encircling the room hold seven sewing machines, some designated for a single task, such as finishing seams or creating "blind stitching," wherein the stitches, especially on delicate fabrics, are invisible. Various garments in the process of alteration are draped over the tables.
After more than 25 years in the business, Grasso has tackled just about every tailoring job: "I can do everything now from sewing on a button to making a gown or a man's suit."
Grasso, the mother of two grown children, moved to Clearwater in 1982, opened her first tailor shop in 1984 on Cleveland Street and had several other shops before landing at her current site on downtown's Park Street in 2000. It's across from downtown Clearwater's bus terminal.
She considers the shop a success, bringing in enough to pay her bills and put both of her children through college.
She credits her mother with having inspired her to succeed through hard work and independence. In 1970, Grasso left Portugal with her widowed mother and three siblings and settled in Ludlow, Mass., the home of her maternal grandfather.
"My mother refused to go on welfare," Grasso said. "She worked in a textile mill so we could eat and pay the rent."
Grasso, barely 16 at the time, went to night school, passed the GED test and received her high school diploma. Then she found work in a small local factory manufacturing samples of women's clothing. Those samples were sent on to a larger plant in New York for mass manufacture and distribution.
At the Ludlow factory, the young tailor-to-be began acquiring the skills that eventually led to her becoming an entrepreneur.
She speaks proudly of having passed on some of those skills to her children, Sabrina, 20, and Joshua, 24.
Sabrina is a business major at the University of South Florida. Joshua, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, attends Columbia University in New York.
Grasso taught them to have a dream and to work to obtain it.
"A child can achieve anything he wants to in this great country," Grasso said. "All you need is a vision, determination and hard work."