[EDITOR'S NOTE — Each week, this feature section, “Movers and Makers,” will feature the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank.]
BOARDMAN — Suzanne’s fashion boutique will celebrate its 45th anniversary during the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend.
Suzanne Kessler and her late sister, Kathy Kane, originally opened The Tennis Connection, a tennis apparel and equipment store, in Niles on Black Friday in 1975.
Now named Suzanne’s, the store owners eventually moved locations to Boardman — now at 813 Boardman-Poland Road — and started to focus their inventory on American-made and women-owned fashion and accessory companies.
In the 1970s, Kessler and Kane were both tennis players, and their mother was a tennis instructor at Avalon Inn and Trumbull Country Club. They saw an increase in folks interested in playing tennis, but no local store that sold apparel.
Between lessons, their mother, Marge Cless, would sew handmade tennis warm-up outfits. Kessler said that’s what initially inspired them to open their store.
“We carried a little bit of fashion at our Niles store after several years, but my sister passed away after we had had the store for about 14 years,” Kessler said. “I got married, and my husband is from Youngstown and he said, ‘I think it'd be a great idea to move the store.’”
“So once we were in Boardman, I just [felt that] tennis and golf wear always seems to look the same, and fashion changes so many times a year and it just seems more exciting to me than move on [to] something like that,” she added.
In that era, the late 1980s, with steel mills closing in Youngstown, many people questioned how the business could establish itself. Kessler said they were determined to work through it — and she’s keeping that same attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like now with social distancing and wearing masks, my store is pretty wide open and we can social distance very easily. But we still have curbside pickup,” she said. “During the first lockdown, we were running out to cars and home delivering. We will be very busy. We have been very busy.”
She added: “It's easy to pull up to our door. You don't have to park in a big parking lot. It's so much easier than going to the mall and we do free gift wrapping.”
Kessler said the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to improve the store’s focus on online orders and expand the store’s social media presence, with the help of her son, Henry Kessler.
“[Facebook has] really brought in so many new people. We were posting things during the first lockdown, and people were calling us from Florida and Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, Michigan. We were selling — it was so crazy in here. The phone was ringing on both lines, and we were trying to get all this stuff out — and it was great,” she said.
Kessler told Mahoning Matters that although Suzanne’s is continuously reaching new clientele, the boutique has many returning customers who have been loyal to the store since it was The Tennis Connection.
“We go through families, and then their kids grow up and then they start shopping here,” she said.
Suzanne’s commemorated its 45th anniversary with a 40 percent off sale last week. This week, Kessler said the store plans a Black Friday sale that has yet to be announced. Visit Suzanne’s Facebook page for information.