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Greenville & Hockessin Life

A window on the world

Nov 20, 2016 02:25PM ● By J. Chambless

Irene Wood, 93, has designed the windows for the Wilmington Country Store for about 30 years. (Photo by Jie Deng)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

As a young girl during the dark days of the Great Depression, Irene Wood remembers looking up at the bolts of cloth in her aunt's fabric shop in Scranton and falling in love with how they were meticulously arranged. She will be 94 in March, and the lure of a well-arranged display has been a constant in her long life.
Sitting in the window of the Wilmington Country Store, where she has been designing window displays for about 30 years, Wood recalled a childhood largely insulated from the worst hardships of the Depression. 
"I grew up in Scranton, and I was the oldest daughter. There were five of us," she said. "My mother always took me with her shopping. When I was probably 6, we'd get on the bus and go walk around downtown. It was very nice back in those days. Lewis and Reilly used to have a huge store, and we'd buy our shoes there. They were so beautifully arranged.
"As a girl, I played with paper dolls and cut out clothes for them," she said. "My father always made sure we all had paper and pencils and crayons. For Christmas, there would be paper chains all over the house."
Wood attended Lackawanna Business School and worked as a secretary at Hercules, a job which brought her to Wilmington in 1943. "We lived on Delaware Avenue," she said, "Number 1812."
After she married, Wood said, "You couldn't really work in those days, and that's when I started with the window stuff."
In 1969, Wood was working on the sales floor at the Mullins clothing store in the then-new Concord Mall, working with executives who had to buy suits for work, but were often clueless about how to coordinate an outfit. "In those days, they had professional window men who came from Philadelphia," Wood recalled, and she paid attention to their work. "It was a beautiful store. Everything was perfect. I worked with the window men, and with the seamstresses. You had to press everything for the window, and it all had to be perfect."
Wood and her husband raised a family in Delaware, and today she has three daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who are scattered across the country. Since her husband passed away 17 years ago, Wood still lives by herself, still drives, and still turns up at the Country Store about every two weeks to change out the windows. But the Christmas window is the biggest project of the year.
Today, department store windows are something of an afterhought, unless they are the Manhattan show windows that draw thousands of tourists every holiday season. The excitement and long lines generated in New York City were once commonplace, and a store's windows were its biggest form of advertising. Everything from drug stores to plumbing supply houses spent a considerable amount of effort filling the windows with eye-catching displays that were intended to lure people inside.
The Wilmington Country Store has been a part of the Greenville Crossing shopping center in Greenville since 1952, offering a wide range of clothing that's well made and classic. The store is actually very large, but depends on its five windows to advertise what's inside.
"This is a very personal window," Wood said, waving at a passer-by on the sidewalk. "I always look at windows when I'm any other city, in Florida or Washington. I love to go and see the windows."
Wood was working across Route 52, at the Enchanted Owl store, when she was recruited to come over and work for the Country Store. "I said 30 years ago that I'd stay five years," Wood said, smiling. "I didn't start out doing the windows, though. I learned the store first."
Props and decorations for the windows are boxed in the basement of the store, and re-used season after season, but Wood always adds her own touch. This year, she brought her own tabletop Christmas tree to add to the window display.
"I always start with one thing at the center, and I have a theme in mind," she said. "I go around the store the pick out what's going to work with that center item. Sometimes I put in golf clubs, or sleds, or things like that. The secret is that you have to have something that will catch the eye -- even if it's a pair of socks, a tie, jewelry. Blue in men's windows gets their attention. Men like blue."
The window designs are all Wood's, although she said she takes suggestions into consideration.
Many of her displays, which are changed every two weeks, are centered on holidays. "We try to put the flag in for some holidays," she said. "It changes every year, with the different merchandise. I just know what looks good. You don't want to frighten people, but attract them. You can be very showy, but with good taste."
Today, window displays are largely decreed by a corporate office somewhere, and laid out according to a plan, Wood said. Mall stores are only allowed to display what they're told. "And some of the windows are plain terrible," she said, laughing.
The independent Country Store allows Wood free rein, but her stylish sensibility meshes perfectly with the store's loyal customers -- some of whom are third-generation shoppers there.
"People are so nice about my work," she said. "They seem to like everything I do. I think it's nice to look at something pretty. We have beautiful merchandise to show off. The main thing to put in the window is something appealing, classic, something that everyone can wear. Windows are like a painting -- they have to tell a story," she said.
The problem is that Wood's displays are often too appealing, and whatever clothing she puts there will sell quickly. "Then I have to go and find something in the store that will work with the design, and replace the piece that sold," she said. "Everyone likes to look at good things."'
Looking back over the past nine decades, Wood said that much has changed. "We didn't have a lot of snack stuff," she said of her childhood. "We ate our three meals, but when my mother went into the city, she always brought home candy for us."
The independence of childhood is also largely gone, she said. "We lived almost outside the city, on a mountain, and we'd play there," she said, smiling. "We climbed over the mountain to play, and at 5:00, it would be, 'Daddy's going to be home,' so we'd go home."
Despite the huge changes and upheavals that she has seen, "I'm optimistic about the future," Wood said. "The future is going to be wonderful, but it has to be right and honest. If everybody would think to be kind and honest, that will be the savior. That's what it's going to take. People can't get too upset, because that won't help us either. You've got to stay strong. 
"But looking back, I've had a magnificent time," she said. "Oh, I really have."

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].

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