By Luciana Chavez, Special to the Office of External Relations
Bree Migliazzo saw an opportunity and jumped. In January, the energetic mother of two would never have guessed she’d have to fulfill her dream of running a business in the middle of a pandemic.
“Everything that has happened since we opened, none of it has been expected,” the Merced College alumna said.
Migliazzo wasn’t just opening a business. She was taking the reins of women’s boutique Helen & Louise, the grand dame in downtown Merced for 76 years.
She did a pas de deux with history when the state began restricting non-essential businesses on March 19.
Her task? Keep alive the second longest-running women’s clothing shop in the United States while businesses across the country shuttered one by one.
No big deal, right?
“Anytime anyone came into the shop these last few months, it was nice to feel normal,” Migliazzo said. “It was always bright in here, even though it was dark outside.”
This Golden Valley High School alumna took it on because she had a dream. She’d done some accounting and taught pilates the past 10 years while raising a family with husband Ben Migliazzo.
Then Helen & Louise owner Jackie Goodwin, one of her pilates students, revealed that her Merced Police chief husband was retiring, and the couple was moving.
“Everyone in class that day was buzzing,” Migliazzo said. “One lady told Jackie, ‘You’re not closing, are you?’ I was thinking the same thing.”
Migliazzo is a Helen & Louise lifer, after all. She grew up staring at a photo of her grandmother Alice in her wedding dress, purchased at Helen & Louise in 1958, on the shop wall during regular trips there.
She loved fashion and also knew her youngest son would soon be starting kindergarten.
“I thought maybe I should [talk to] Jackie,” the mother of boys Luca and Gio said. “I was super nonchalant and awkward, like, ‘Hey, great class. By the way, if you’re thinking about closing or selling, let’s talk.’”
Goodwin was already fielding an offer. Migliazzo had to wait, but then that deal fell through.
Migliazzo signed a contract in January. She dragged Goodwin to the Los Angeles market to purchase the boutique’s summer stock in late February. The week they returned, COVID-19 landed.
“It got really scary, really fast,” she said. Migliazzo’s lawyer called in April and said she could back out of the deal. She said no. “Even if I did fail, at least I would have tried,” she said.
Migliazzo literally opened Helen & Louise on April 27 with a locked door. As a non-essential business, she began selling via Instagram with curbside pickups. Eventually she offered private shopping for one customer at a time.
“There were days I wasn’t sure I’d make it,” he said. “Then someone would buy an outfit and I could pay my PG&E bill.”
Migliazzo was eventually able to help high school seniors find outfits for graduation photos last spring. They didn’t get a ceremony, but were squeezing all they could out of a raw situation. She embraced that sweet irony, secretly slipping small gifts into each bag.
“I wanted to bring something positive to their lives at a time when they were missing the acknowledgement they’d earned,” she said.
Migliazzo was also encouraging them, Hey, think about Merced College. That’s where she herself learned how to navigate the unknown.
Not ready to leave home after graduating from GVHS, she enrolled at the College at a time when tuition cost just $11 per unit. [She would eventually earn a degree in mass communication at Sonoma State.]
“I saved so much money,” Migliazzo said. “I had zero debt while I tried so many different things.”
She credited MC philosophy professor Travis Hicks and counselor Betsy Donovan for helping her to figure it out.
“Some of the best professors I ever had were at Merced College,” Migliazzo said. “There is so much to be gleaned [there] if you give the professors a chance. Being at a CSU or a UC doesn’t guarantee a better education.”
Migliazzo gave Merced College a chance. It worked out.
Seven months in, the upbeat and clear-eyed business owner now understands you sometimes have to also take a chance on yourself.
“We treaded water, but we’re still here,” she said. “I’ve been dealt some cards I would have rather thrown back. But I’ve controlled what I could and let the rest go. That has been my lesson in 2020.”