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Any chance to bask in the effervescence of 97-year-oldLansing retailing legend Betty Price is beyond compare. PlaywrightSandra Seaton has known this for decades.
“She has a great ability to use energy well, mentally andemotionally,” Seaton said. “I’ve always enjoyed her love for design andfor the arts. She has a great perspective on things.”
As a customer, as a friend and now as a historian, Seatonhas tracked Price’s remarkable life for 40 years. On Tuesday, the twowill sit down at Schuler Books in the Meridian Mall to talk aboutPrice’s 50-year run as owner and guiding spirit of Liebermann’s,downtown Lansing’s premier gift shop, where the real Mad Men of the1950s bought tony gifts for their wives, kids — and mistresses.
The latest issue of Modernism Magazine features a livelyand handsome spread, written by Seaton, about Price’s reign atLiebermann’s and her experiences with George Nelson and other modernistdesigners. Tuesday’s talk celebrates the story’s publication.
Price would probably laugh at the idea, but Seaton sees aconnection between her most famous subject — Thomas Jefferson — andLansing’s legendary retail queen. Price was a passionate advocate ofmid-20th-century-modern design. She hired Nelson, one of the world’sforemost modernists, to dress the Liebermann’s store at 117 S.Washington Square in a classy, glassy grid of suspended steps andhanging shelves — the only retail store Nelson ever designed.
The merchandise inside Liebermann’s was held to a similarly high standard, even though many gifts were 10 bucks and under.
“It was more than just a store where she sold things,”Seaton said. “She brought beauty to the home. She thought of herself asan educator, as far as the customers were concerned.”
Seaton’s works include a play, “Sally,” and a libretto,“From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” chronicling the lives of Jeffersonand his mistress, Sally Hemings. Seaton was drawn to Jefferson as ahistorical subject, in part, because of his interest in design. Seatonplanned to study architecture at the University of Michigan beforelife, including four kids, got in the way.
“Jefferson was some version of a mid-century-modern kindof guy,” Seaton said. “He was an architect, a draftsman. Envisioningthat world was fascinating to me. I could definitely see (writing) aplay about Betty and her world. She’s right out of that ThomasJefferson playbook.”
The interviews for Seaton’s story were conducted at Price’s home in East Lansing, designed by top local modernist Kenneth Black.
Seaton’s fascination with Price goes back to their first encounter in 1971, when Seaton moved to Lansing.
To this day, African-American shoppersget a hairy eyeball from some white storekeepers, especially inhigh-end emporiums. In 1971, Seaton was new in town and braced for theworst every time she walked through an unfamiliar door.
“I’d had different experiences in places about that same time,” Seaton said. “People size you up.”
But Seaton and her husband needed a“special” wedding gift for a friend, and Lansing residents saidLiebermann’s was the place to go.
“We walk in the door and there’s thiswoman who was so gracious. She didn’t know us, but it was as if we werewalking into her home as her guest.”
Seaton was pleased that Price didn’tpatronize her or steer her to less expensive stuff. She ended up withan Orrefors decanter, “wrapped so beautifully you didn’t want to openit.”
“The way she treated us that day — I was a customer for as long as there was a Liebermann’s.”
Since Liebermann’s closed in 1991, Pricehas traveled the world, looking for jewelry to sell at her trunk showsbenefiting the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts; her 23rd annualsale takes place from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Wharton Center’sChristman Lounge.
She moved to Milwaukee last fall to be closer to family, but plans to return to Lansing often.
In the meantime, Price has become acelebrity in modernist circles, a condition this month’s ModernismMagazine story will surely help along.
Last December, Seaton took Price to visit the Herman Miller furniture company in Zeeland.
“That was a great day,” Seaton said.“She would stop everybody and say, ‘You know, I knew George Nelson.’She was a celebrity. The plant managers and administrators all ran outto say hi.”
True to her alarmingly robust health,Price refused to use the elevator as they toured the plant. “I thoughtshe’d be good for a couple of hours and we were there for four or fivehours,” Seaton said.
Price’s keen sense of design, hergregarious charm and her mighty, retail-fortified legs have allimpressed Seaton. So has Price’s quiet way of getting on with whatevercomes next in her life.
“You don’t see Betty fretting overthings,” Seaton said. “She’s methodical person, but not obsessive. Iguess you could say she lives a well-designed life.”
Sandra Seaton and Betty Price
7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25
Schuler Books, Meridian Mall
1982 Grand River Ave.