Fashion Cents

Tina Gregoire, owner and founder of Tina’s Home Designs, has weathered 40 years of fashion changes in downtown Burlington

Sean Toussaint

Tina Gregoire's first downtown Burlington store sold fabrics to people who sewed. She moved into the three-story building at 21 Church St. after buying it in 1978. When it became cheaper to buy clothes than to make them, she looked to her son, Chris, to help overhaul the business from fabrics to furnishings.

Forty years might seem like a long time, but Tina Gregoire, owner and founder of Tina's Home Designs, makes it sound like no time at all as she talks about her store's 40th anniversary.

Born Tina Cannizzaro to a mother and father who emigrated from Sicily, Italy, Gregoire grew up in Burlington with five brothers. Her father was a painter and owned a greenhouse and her mother was a seamstress.

She was working for a phone company when she first wanted to visit her parents' home land but was denied time off because of a staffing shortage. "I had saved money for the trip and was looking forward to meeting family I had over there," Gregoire shyly reminisces, "so I decided to go to Italy for three months and worry about a job when I got back."

Despite a social climate that discouraged women from working, let alone owning a business, Gregoire returned from Italy with the intention of opening a fabrics store. Gregoire had spent all her life sewing, so she didn't see any reason why she couldn't sell fabrics to women who sewed their own clothes.

Using money left over from her trip and a bank loan cosigned by her mother and father, she rented a small space on the bottom floor of The Burlington Free Press offices on College Street. Her brothers built the shelves and counters while she visited fabrics shows in New York and Boston. In less than six months, Gregoire was helping women pick out fabrics for formal dresses, nightgowns and children's school clothes.

"I don't know many stores that have been around downtown Burlington as long as we have," Gregoire says. "The jewelry stores ... but not many others. It was a lot different back then. Most of the businesses on Church Street were family-owned. All the women sewed their own clothes. I know I didn't want to go back working for a phone company, so I thought I'd do something I was fairly good at."

Every employee at Tina's has a specialty. "We don't have anyone who just works the cash register," Chris Gregoire says. Pictured: Paula Cunningham (left) is color and design specialist; Paula Macomber (sitting) is general manager; Bobbi-Jo Maglaris is window design specialist; and Lorraine Barr is assistant manager.

Gregoire ran the business by herself for a little more than a year until she married Maurice Gregoir, who came on board to sell. She credits Maurice "a very, very good salesman" for building up the store's reputation over the next five years.

Along with the growing demand for Tina's fabrics came the need for a bigger showroom and more room for inventory, so Tina's moved down the street to where the Bourbon Street Grill is now located. In 1978 a building at the top of Church Street came up for sale. Gregoire bought the building and moved her store into the first floor.

Gregoire still owns the building and rents eight commercial units, including one to the basement tenant, the Peace and Justice Center, an educational non-profit organization. Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Peace and Justice Center, says Gregoire has been supportive of the center and made sure its needs have been met in a timely fashion over the 10 years the center has been there.

Kahler says she's aware of the stark difference between the justice center's purpose and that of the home design store one floor up. "We've tried to be very respectful of their business," Kahler says. "You know, we make sure not to have demonstrations that will disrupt them. I don't know if Tina even agrees with what we do, but she's never questioned our politics. She's always been very professional to us. We're fortunate to have such a good landlord."

About the time the justice center moved into 21 Church St., Tina's was forced to weather a fabrics boom when "it seemed like everybody had to have a fabrics store," Gregoire says, "but they didn't all survive. The ones that didn't know what women wanted didn't last long."

Gregoire never received formal design training, and she won't say what makes her buy one style over another, but she knows what she likes. "I like nice things," she says. "It's a matter of filling in what you need, but I always keep the customer in mind. Will they like this? Will they want to spend the money? Will it go with a lot of different things? That's the way I buy it."

Her fashion sense was put to the test at the end of the fabrics boom. It was the late 1980s. More women were working and spending less time at home, and it was no longer cheaper to make clothes than it was to buy them. Gregoire realized that she would have to move out of the clothing fabrics business if she wanted her store to survive.

Tina's had already expanded into home decorating mostly curtains and drapes but didn't have much of a grip on the market. Maurice was on the brink of burning out and had told his wife he didn't know if he was up to overhauling the store. He didn't know anything about home decorating and didn't seem too interested in learning much about it. Gregoire still had the desire to run the business, and it just so happened that her first-born son, Chris, was graduating from the University of Vermont with a finance major and no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"It was a matter of letting go of the fabrics part of the business, which my father spent 23 years doing," says Chris, manager and part-owner of Tina's Home Design. "I think it needed someone young enough, who didn't know any better, who could make a complete change. Sometimes you need that youthfulness to say you're going to roll the dice and see where they land. It turned out to be something we really needed to do."

Chris replaced his father as Tina's moved completely into home decorating. The store had a major sale of its existing inventory at a separate location. Gregoire again visited trade shows, this time researching items for the home. She decided what she liked, matched that with what she could sell and jumped head first into a business she had been unfamiliar with months earlier.

The Tina's of today is nothing like the first Tina's on College Street, which was strewn with fabrics dripping off shelves and wrapped around vertical rolls. Tina's still has fabrics, but they're positioned at the back of the store. Up front is a well-lighted path of lamps and lighting fixtures. Hundreds of throw rugs with a dizzying array of patterns and colors hang from opposite walls. Mirrors, framed pictures, drink pitchers and faux flowers adorned with price tags bring different pieces of furniture together.

Living rooms come to life with well-placed couches and chairs, end tables and coffee tables. Dining rooms are created with an eight-seat table, high-back chairs, a throw rug and a centerpiece. No longer the specialty store it started as, Tina's can transform or create a house from floor to ceiling.

The personal touch doesn't stay inside the store. Chris is the in-home consultant, visiting clients at their houses free of charge. "We just sort of evolved into consulting," says Chris, a father of four. "It was a function of the sophistication of the consumer. Consumers want professionals to tell them what products to use, whether they need privacy, or light control. They want people to tell them what looks good with the style of their home and their furnishings, so we can go in and recommend paint, mirrors, drapes, furniture."

Chris says the home decorating business has ballooned in recent years because people redecorate much more than they ever had. Twenty years ago, he says families would decorate their house once, maybe twice. Today, it's more like every five years.

In his home decorating travels, Chris has visited some of the most lavish homes in the Champlain Valley, some tucked away at the end of long driveways the ones you never see unless you're invited. "It's amazing how many wealthy people are living in this area," he says.

Tina's is also involved in commercial buildings, whether it's advising people on the design of their office or bidding on large-scale commercial projects like other subcontractors. Tina's recently won one of those bids and is installing blinds in the Cathedral Square low-income housing project on Mansfield Avenue in Burlington. "That's a whole other kind of business," Chris says, "because it doesn't require the same level of service that a home desires."

The only merchandise Tina's doesn't own are blinds, which are made to order and paid for after installation. The store buys everything else in stock, and typically has 30 days to pay for it. That means anything that doesn't sell can't be sent back to the distributor to make room for new arrivals. Instead, Tina's occasionally has large sales well advertised in placards on Church Street in front of the store.

Unlike free-standing furniture stores, Tina's gets a lot of walk-in traffic. That makes window displays an important part of business. Two interior designers are in charge of setting up new and inviting merchandise that will appeal to passers-by.

"We get a lot of people who don't intend on coming here," Chris says. "We get a lot of vacationers. They're a lot more relaxed. Sometimes people on vacation are feeling good and want to make a purchase, and we can ship it to them. We have (downtown) workers come in for lunch they're always very good customers."

Window coverings are the most popular item at Tina's and the only merchandise the store does not own because they are made-to-order. Bobbi-Jo Maglaris takes the orders, and specifications and Tary Kirk installs them.

Then, there are the customers who don't set foot in the store. Because of the in-home service, Chris says he is introduced to many customers at their homes. Half of the window covering customers have never been in the store, Chris says. Even if they did come in, he says he'd have to set up an in-home appointment to get a feel of the house and to make the measurements.

Clients may keep something they like for up to a week to see if it fits with the rest of their home. Chris says he's never had a problem with damaged goods and the free trial doesn't devalue the merchandise. "Decorating is a risky business. People like to see and touch and sit in something they're going to buy. They want to see what it looks like in their homes. They might see a picture in a catalog, but then they get it in their homes only to find out it doesn't match."

Chris says that level of service gives Tina's a leg up on the catalog industry, and because Tina's offers free consultation and week-long trials, it can be cheaper to shop there than at the do-it-yourself stores.

The owners say they cater to middle- and upper-scale clientele, who must put down a 20 to 30 percent deposit on merchandise. "We have all kinds of customers: wealthy customers who are very frugal; wealthy customers who are not frugal; not-so-wealthy customers who want to live large."

Standing before a rack of 6x9-foot rugs, a customer can find a synthetic rug for $100 and a hand-made rug for $2,000. The same thing goes for fabric, which sells for as low as $3 a yard and as high as $100 a yard.

Gregoire continues as the sole buyer, but she is supported by people with similar tastes who can help a client match the merchandise in the store with the look of their home. Of the six employees, four have received formal interior design education: one drapery manager, one rug manager and two interior designers. Tina also employs an installer, her son-in-law Tary Kirk; and an office manager, Gregoire's daughter Paula Macomber. Employees do not work on commission, which Chris says is vital for a no-pressure atmosphere and an enjoyable work environment.

Salaries are a large part of the overhead, as are the two delivery trucks that load up furniture in the parking lot behind the store. Tina's contracts out its custom work to four companies. It can be a challenge to make sure every drapery, cushion, reupholstered recliner and bedspread comes out to specification, but Chris says it beats the alternative: having more employees on the payroll when there's no work going their way.

Gregoire is beginning to cut back on her work load. She turned over the administrative and bookkeeping part of the business last July to Paula, whose biggest challenge was putting the records on the computer. Prior to last year Gregoire kept her documents on paper.

Paula says she was a little skeptical about working in the family business because she was afraid of it not working out, "but it's been incredible just perfect," she says. "My mother is a very strong person. She's always been a rock, even in the family. We all look up to her."

That kind of praise reddens Gregoire's cheeks, even through the dab of blush she wears. She says she's no different than anyone else. "I don't know what it is, but we've been around for 40 years, so we must be doing something right."

At the end of August, she left for her second month-long trip to Italy in four months. This time, she didn't bother asking anyone for time off.

Originally published in October 2001 Business People-Vermont