The queen moves on
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
Former Liebermann's owner Betty Price leaves Lansing, leaving behind an indelible legacyBetty Price walked briskly across the sitting room she has been walking briskly across for 64 years.
“Let’s talk over here.”
Price, 97, is the cordial, kindly queen of Lansing retail. Walking is what she does. For decades, she was the owner and floor-walking sales maestro at Liebermann’s Department Store, a lost sanctuary of downtown elegance.
Now she runs a jewelry business, traveling the world to find the best designs, donating half the profits to the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts.
Her sitting room is full of amber light. The sun pours through a 40-foot bank of high windows onto gold wallpaper and a burnished slate floor. The space is spectacular, but it’s so open and simply furnished you could clean it with a leaf blower.
“I wanted a simple design,” she said. “I love doing things. I don’t love housework.”
Always the classiest being on the block, Price commissioned her East Lansing house from modernist Lansing architect Kenneth Black in 1946, when her neighborhood north of the Michigan State University campus was the edge of a field.
When Black agreed to build the house, Price said, “I was just high. He’d been dying to do a house like this. Everybody else was doing Tudor cottages.”
Last Thursday, the house was in transition. The usual junk that jumps out of the closet before a big move — boxes, files, rolls of Christmas wrapping paper — was piling up at the edges.
Price will soon leave her Lansing life to be near her son, Tom, and grandkids in Milwaukee. Price’s other son, Michael, died in September, leaving her without family in Lansing.
Nobody would blame Price for sitting in this big amber room and letting the memories harden around her.
On her way from the kitchen, she pointed to the Eames chair where her husband, Don, sat hundreds of nights, reading and smoking his pipe.
She bought the chair for Don in 1961, the year the Prices opened their East Lansing store. “He worked so hard that year, I thought, ‘He needs something special.’”
But Price is not stuck in the past.
“You do what you have to do,” she said.
That’s right, Mrs. Price … Mrs. Price?
She was already out the back door, on the patio, kicking at dry leaves.
“We have to take care of these, Tom,” she called to her son inside.
She waved to the south, toward MSU and her beloved Wharton Center.
“I’ve raised half a million, and I want to make it a million,” she said, giving no hint of the one-liner to follow.
“The arts are neglected. They don’t need another athletic supporter over there. They’ve got ‘em.”
In the 1970s, Betty Price sold so much Swedish crystal in little Lansing, Michigan, that she was invited to a reception in Stockholm by the King of Sweden, along with representatives from major retailers like Bonwit Teller and J.L. Hudson.
Everyone who talks about Betty Price, including Betty Price, says she is a born seller.
“I sold more doughnuts than any Girl Scout in Saginaw,” she said proudly. She lived in Saginaw before coming to school at MSU in 1931.
Handbags were her first beachhead.
“Back in those days, people had to have shoes and a handbag to go with every outfit,” she said. “That was great for the handbag business.”
Thousands of times, Price ran up and down the stairs to the stock room of Liebermann’s Trunk, the first version of Liebermann’s in Lansing, holding one shoe, in search of the perfect match.
“I was young,” she said. “It was good for me.”
Decades later, in Liebermann’s mid-century heyday, Price was still at it, running up and down the floating steps of the modernist storefront she commissioned from George Nelson.
“I can still see her going up and down those stairs,” former customer and employee John Eby recalled. “That’s probably what’s kept her going all these years — all that exercise she got.”
Last week, Price’s friend, Joyce Banish, called the University Club to make arrangements for Price’s 97th birthday celebration Saturday. The staff asked if they should seat Price close to the door.
“I told them to put her in the center of the room, where everybody can talk to her,” Banish said. “She can outwalk any of us.”
People thought Price’s father, Hugo Boettscher, was crazy when he bought the Edmonds luggage store at 107 S. Washington Square in downtown Lansing from its aging owners in 1931. The “real” Depression, as Price calls it, was just beginning.
“Everybody predicted he’d be out of business in six months,” Price said.
Boettscher wasn’t the only businessman to forge ahead in tough times. That same year, R.E. Olds built the Olds Tower, now the Boji Tower, still Lansing’s tallest building.
Within months, Liebermann’s Trunk Co., named after Boettscher’s brother-in-law, was thriving in the shadow of that tower.
Price had three brothers, but none of them showed an interest in working at their father’s store. The youngest, Junie, was killed in World War II. Price still mourns him.
“He was a darling boy. I’d come home from school and take him out in the carriage. He was very bright and had a wonderful attitude.”
She paused a few seconds, as if pondering whether to indulge in a rare negative remark.
“How could we get into such a situation? Politics — lousy politics. I still am angry to think we were in a war and hope we never, ever get in another one.”
When Price graduated from Michigan State in 1935, the born seller dropped the notion of being an English teacher and asked her father if she could work in the family store.
“He gave me half of the lower floor — you didn’t dare call it the basement,” Price said.
Price’s legendary eye for quality started straying from handbags right away.
At luggage trade shows in Chicago and New York, vendors displayed the latest gift items. She persuaded her father to add a gift table in the base — er, lower level.
The table became the store’s hot spot.
John Eby moved to New York from Lansing in 1979, but he vividly recalls many trips to the lower level with his mom.
Far from being bored, he couldn’t wait to go.
“I was mesmerized by this wonderful woman who knew everything about everything in her store and could give you the history behind every piece,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, Price had the whole lower floor to herself before long.
On the floor
By now, she had a
But Price’s eye for quality was already well developed.
“The first time I went out with him, I knew he was the man for me,” she said.
Don’s low-key salesmanship complemented Betty’s gregarious style.
“He took to the store as if he were born to it,” Price said.
“I didn’t want to be in an office. I wanted to be on the floor, with the customers,” she said.
There was Rosenthal china and crystal, George Jensen silver, Ghurka bags and a lot of other high-end stuff.
The gift wrap
Long before anybody heard of a personal shopper, Price and Bell got carte blanche from Lansing’s busy professionals.
The customer base
The store’s elegance intimidated some people, but Price made sure there were affordable gifts in stock.
Bell, of Lansing, worked at Liebermann’s 42 years, raising two daughters and putting them through college.
“I don’t think she was ever harsh to anyone,” Bell said of Price.
“I worked myself from stockboy to V.P. of the corporation,” Bell said. “That has been very fruitful to me.”
Like Price, Bell connected well with his customers, often to his subsequent benefit.
“She causes quite a stir,” Banish said.
“She’s like Alka-Seltzer — she’s effervescent and she makes you feel better.”
After all, Price has been through this before — in 1931, when she came to MSU.
“I died when we moved here from Saginaw,” Price said. “I thought Saginaw was wonderful. It didn’t take me long.”
Banish thinks it would be child’s play for Price to infiltrate the 140-year-old store.
“The gentleman there is getting on in years,” Price mused. “Maybe he could use some help.”