Advertisement
  1. Business

Longtime dress shop owner, 90, retiring; store closing

Helen Cabrera has matched customers with fashions from her dress shop for decades.
Helen Cabrera has matched customers with fashions from her dress shop for decades.
Published Aug. 21, 2014

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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

  1. Trader Peter Mazza works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) [CRAIG RUTTLE  |  AP]
  2. Windhaven Insurance is closing its office in the Anchor Plaza office park and laying off 61 Tampa employees. (Google street view) [Google street view]
  3. Trader Peter Tuchman works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) [CRAIG RUTTLE  |  AP]
  4. The antebellum mansions of Charleston's East Battery are a highlight of the city's historic district. SUSAN C. HEGGER  |  St. Louis Post Dispatch (2004) [SUSAN C. HEGGER  |  KRT]
  5. MICHELE MILLER |  Times
The apartment-building boom along the State Road 54 and SR 56 corridor in southern Pasco County has sparked a public debate among Pasco commission members wondering how many is too many when it comes to multifamily housing. On Tuesday, commissioners indicated they will kill the transportation subsidy for new apartment complexes.
  6. The sub station takes center stage at the new West Shore Publix supermarket opening on Thursday. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
  7. Tampa Park Apartments is on property between downtown and Ybor City, at East Scott Street and Nuccio Parkway. [Times (2018)]
  8. Hyde House in Hyde Park Village on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020 in Tampa.  [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times]
  9. FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2019, file photo, Disney CEO Robert Iger arrives at the world premiere of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker", in Los Angeles  The Walt Disney Co. has named Bob Chapek CEO, replacing Bob Iger, effective immediately, the company announced Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.  (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, FIle) [JORDAN STRAUSS  |  Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP]
  10. In this June 17, 2019, file photo, a cashier displays a packet of tobacco-flavored Juul pods at a store in San Francisco. Investigators from 39 states will look into the marketing and sales of vaping products by Juul Labs, including whether the company targeted youths and made misleading claims about nicotine content in its devices, officials announced Tuesday. Juul released a statement saying it has halted television, print and digital advertising and eliminated most flavors in response to concerns by government officials and others.  (AP Photo/Samantha Maldonado, File) [SAMANTHA MALDONADO  |  AP]
  11. St. Petersburg-based Jabil said Tuesday it's projecting that the spread of the coronavirus will hurt its second-quarter performance. [Handout photo]
  12. The future site of Green Light Cinema at 221 Second Ave on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 in St. Petersburg. The art house theater will be nestled between Pour Taproom and 2nd & Second. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times]
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement