When long-time customer Faye Buchanan goes into Maggie J’s Dress Shop in downtown Corbin, she always knows she’s going to find something she likes.
On her most recent visit, it was a few sweaters and some pants. She’s been shopping there since 1998.
But it’s more than just the color, style and quality of the clothing she likes.
“I like the personal interaction with Maggie J,” she says, referring to storeowner Maxine Von Gruenigen who has, over the years, become synonymous with the store’s name to many of her customers.
Maggie Jemimah Wyrick, Von Gruenigen’s aunt, died over 30 years ago. There’s never been any serious thought about changing the name of the store, which celebrates a big milestone this month — 75 continuous years in business.
“It never entered my mind,” Von Gruenigen said while serving customers coming in and out of the iconic downtown Corbin business. “She tried to get me to change, but I always kept it the same. If it had not have been for her, I wouldn’t have done all this all these years.”
Von Gruenigen also jokes that her own last name is “so hectic” she didn’t want to name the store after herself.
No matter. To most everyone who shops at Maggie J’s, she is Maggie J.
Wyrick founded the store in 1942 along with her husband, Roy, who ran the accompanying shoe store. Originally, the store was next to the former Freeman and Childers Law Offices, across the street from its current location. Von Gruenigen started working at the age of 15 stocking items in another local store. Maggie J identified immediately she had a knack for the business and asked her to help out.
Roy died in his 40s, so Maggie J and Von Gruenigen were left to run the business. Immediately, they ran into struggles.
“When he died, the Brown Shoe Company wouldn’t sell to women. They required a man to manage their shoe sales. Here we were with a dress shop and a shoe store, but they wouldn’t sell us any shoes,” Von Gruenigen said.
It created a dilemma. They did find another shoe supplier to help them weather the storm. The two built a solid customer base.
Von Gruenigen, who is now 87-years-old, said she was 26-years-old when she was first tasked with running the store for about a year while Wyrick was away after having back surgery.
Wyrick later offered the store to Von Gruenigen, whom she always viewed as her adopted daughter, after a battle with cancer. Wyrick and her late husband never had any children.
“She just came in one day and said, ‘I’m going to sell the store.’ I told her I didn’t want it,” Von Gruenigen said. “I was just worn out. I had my son and I had been helping take care of her and her treatments. It was just a lot.”
“My son went to Boy Scout Camp for a week that summer, and I was home by myself. I figured out real quick that wasn’t the life for me, staying at home,” she added. “I called her and said, ‘Oh Lord, don’t sell that store! I am not happy here by myself at home.’ So that’s how it all happened.”
After 24 years of ownership, Maggy J gave up the store that still bears her name. Von Gruenigen has owned it for 40 years now. She said Wyrick never stepped foot in the store’s current location. The store moved to its currently location – next to Gibson’s Music – when she realized its previous location was too large.
Von Gruenigen said she hasn’t missed out on other things in life simply because she owns the store. She and her husband, Eldred, have traveled to all 50 U.S. States, and have taken five trips across the Atlantic Ocean, including three to Switzerland where her husband’s family originated.
But she never tires of spending time in the store.
“I still love it,” she said. “I have never gotten tired of working in this store.”
She said times have changed. Women dress more casual now than they used to. The economics of a downtown dress shop is a little tougher, but she still does well. Her loyal customer base is aging, though. Some have disappeared.
“I was adding it up the other day, and we’ve lost 42 of our older customers in the last four or five years,” she says. “That’s a lot.”
One of the reasons people like Buchanan and others are so loyal to Maggie J’s is the service. Von Gruenigen knows the sizes of nearly all of her customers by heart. She knows what they like and will contact them when something new and compelling is in stock. Husbands can come in on birthdays or anniversaries or Valentine’s Day and simply tell her they need something for their wives. She knows what to send them home with.
“We went through the entire Christmas season and just had one return,” Von Gruenigen says, with a great deal of pride. “Think about that! I know my customers.”
Blessed with good health and an agile mind, Von Gruenigen said she plans to work in the store until she’s 90 … maybe longer.
“The time is coming. I can’t keep going on and on forever,” she said. “It’s gone by so fast. I knew I liked this business as soon as I started working in the store, but I didn’t know I’d be doing it this long! It must have been born in me or something to do this.”
Von Gruenigen said to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the store, she plans to have some sort of special event later this month or in early March.