BUSINESS MONDAY: Byzantium to close in January

A longtime staple of downtown Great Barrington’s retail mix is ​​closing after 43 years.

Annie Minifie, owner of Byzantium, announced she will close the longtime women’s clothing and accessories store in January following a sell-off. She founded Byzantium, located at 32 Zhelezoputna Street, in 1979.

Annie Minifie has run Byzantium for 43 years. Photo courtesy of Byzantium

Minifie said the store is still doing well. However, changes in the overall business climate since the COVID pandemic and her personal priorities have led her to decide to close.

“It was an instant decision, even though I knew it would take a while,” she said. “I’m not getting any younger and I knew I would eventually retire from the business. Then one day I realized it was time to do it.

She noted that the pandemic and subsequent economic instability in recent years have changed conditions in the clothing industry and increased the pressures and demands of running a store like Byzantium.

At the same time, she also had to focus on personal matters, including necessary repairs to her home and settling her late mother’s estate.

“The pandemic has changed everything,” she said. “Before, it was possible to work hard at the store while still having a parallel personal life. But the changes and pressures of the past three years have necessitated a full immersion in the business. Besides, other circumstances demanded my attention, and I was going in too many directions at once.

She also said she made the decision for positive reasons, including spending more time with her children and grandchildren, traveling, gardening and focusing on creating art.

Although he originally hoped to sell Byzantium, this did not happen.

“I had prepared a comprehensive plan with all the details of the business so that a new owner could start work,” she said. “But then Covid came along and derailed that plan.”

The road to being a store owner

After growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, Miniffee moved to New York as a young man and also spent time in Europe. She held a number of jobs, including as a model and film editor – and at the legendary Max’s Kansas City nightclub.

Eventually, looking for a change of pace, she moved to the Berkshires, which she was familiar with through visits and family connections.

After attending Berkshire Community College and graduating from Smith College, she worked for a time as a teacher in Dalton and also on the staff of a drop-in center.
She moved into retail in 1979, noting that it resonated with a number of her own interests.

Annie Minifie outside her store when she first opened it in 1979. Photo courtesy of Byzantium

“I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing, and I had a ‘Now what?’ moment,” she recalls. “I saw this building and I was immediately drawn to the space. I decided to open Byzantium on a whim.

That whim turned into a decades-long career.

Minifie admitted that her landlord, Richard Stanley, helped her open the shop. “He was a great landlord,” she said. “When I first opened he made sure I had everything I needed and has continued to be very supportive over the years.”

Although her business has undergone many changes over time, Minifie has stuck to her original business strategy. Her approach is to provide a diverse selection of women’s clothing and accessories that meet the needs and wants of a diverse clientele – a mix of locals, part-timers and tourists – for casual wear, work wear and special occasion wear.

It aims to carry items in a variety of price ranges, with an emphasis on quality and value.

“We offer clothes that last and don’t go out of style,” she said. “We are not a discount store, but we offer reasonably priced and affordable clothing. We also offer some more expensive, high-end items.” She has also emphasized personalized customer service. This has led to long-term customer relationships.

“Running a business in Great Barrington is wonderful because you are a witness and a participant in all aspects of life,” she said. “We have been serving families for several generations. We dress customers for their everyday activities as well as for important occasions throughout their lives.”

This sense of continuity and connection also extended to her staff and the product representatives she worked with.

She launched Byzantium as a solo act. “At first it was just me and the inventory,” she said. “Eventually I was able to hire a part-time assistant and then a full-time manager and it grew from there.”

She developed a network of full-time and part-time employees. During busy seasons, she has five full-time and part-time employees, and the rest of the time she has one full-time person and one part-time person. Additionally, others work as needed.
She noted that her staff includes people who have been at the store for 15, 20 and even 40 years, and their children and grandchildren have also worked there — and all staff members have found other jobs since the store closed.

“It was like a big family,” she said. “One of my goals when I started the store was to make it a pleasant place to work. People were encouraged to try out ideas.’

The first days in Great Barrington

When she opened Byzantium, Great Barrington was more of a day-to-day working mall than the hip luxury identity it would later become.

“I chose Great Barrington because that’s where people in southern Berkshire County went to buy their essentials,” she said. “I liked that. I also saw other interesting shops opening and it could become a destination. I wanted to be part of the growth of the city.”

With that in mind, she and Barbara Watkins, owner of Evergreen Crafts, founded an organization originally called Railroad St. Association. Other merchants joined in, and eventually it became a full-fledged downtown association.

“We organized marketing campaigns and promotional events,” she recalls. “The goal was to encourage people to look at Great Barrington as a place where they can come and shop and also stay and do things like enjoy a meal at a restaurant.” Gradually it started to happen and it started to develop.”

An abundance of sweaters in Byzantium. Photo by Marcy L. Setlow

It has had to be adaptable over the years. In addition to keeping up with fashion trends, Byzantium has gone through ups and downs in the economy and changes in the competitive landscape and shopping patterns.

“The opening of new forms of competition like Lee Outlets and chain stores has affected the business and I’ve had to change my inventory and the types of items I carry accordingly,” she said. “We also experienced the advent of e-commerce, where people would come in and take pictures of clothes to see if they could find them online.”

She said she has learned many lessons over time. “One guiding principle was the importance of always having a full inventory on hand,” she said. “I did this regardless of the economy, even if it meant cutting my household food budget during tough times.”

One impact of the growth of retail in Great Barrington is the perception that the town is gentrified and geared more towards the high-end market than the general population.

Minifie acknowledged that elements of this were true, but noted that this was not a new development, nor was it a simple situation.

The jewelry counter in Byzantium. Photo by Marcy L. Setlow

“This has been going on for a long time,” she said. “The factors that cause this type of growth are going to happen. But I believe that as a community and as individuals we can have control over how it happens, depending on how we behave. I tried to do that in the way I went about my business. This is one of the reasons I have always stayed within a moderate price range. When some of my brands were increasing their wholesale prices year after year, I spent my time looking for comparable goods at reasonable prices.’

The impact of the COVID pandemic and subsequent changes in the economy are a particularly challenging time, she noted.

“Like other stores, we had to close in the early months of 2020,” she said. “We reopened this summer, but it took a while for customers to come back. Until the summer of 2021, the traffic was very good, but then there were problems with the supply chains.”

Among other effects, she said, all of this has changed the nature of the industry, including suppliers’ relationships with retailers and the availability of goods.

“Vendors don’t know about availability anymore,” she said. “For example, I used to be able to place an order and receive the goods within about a week. Now, on some lines, you have to commit to an order for six to eight months before we can get it into the store.

This unpredictability has made it difficult in various ways. “In the past, I could market test an item by placing a small order for it in the spring,” she said. “Then, if the customer response was good, I could place a larger order for the busy summer season. Now that is not possible.”

The store is still packed with merchandise as the closing sales begin. Photo by Marcy L. Setlow

Minifie said these issues will likely be resolved over time. “I’m optimistic and expect things to come back,” she said.

If this situation had arisen in the past, she would have done what it took to get the business through it. “But now I don’t have the drive or the energy to do it,” she said.

She emphasized that although she will miss the business and the relationships with staff and customers, she sees it as a positive step.

“I don’t regret anything,” she said. “It was a great run. This business has been a gift to me and I am grateful. I’ve met wonderful people and it’s allowed me to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”

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