(2005 Globe file photo/Lane Turner)
Ethel Weiss wears a hand-made button on her sweater: I Love My Customers. It must be the truth; she's been showing up for 72 years.
Under the candy-stripe awning at Irving's Toy and Card Shop in Brookline's Coolidge Corner, locals know they can find relics of the past four generations' childhoods ... and the humble neighbor who tirelessly rigs the treasure chest. Here she plants herself seven mornings a week, her serene pragmatism in some ways ironic among the vibrant trinkets and treats.
An antiquated space-heater's exposed, red-hot coils lend a hand to the blanket tucked in her lap. Their collective warmth challenges drafts that waltz in behind each customer. And on this chilly but bright premiere of March, the little cowbell on the shop's door hardly stops singing. It's always the weather, according to Weiss, that decides visitors. A contrasting downpour coincided with a funeral for Weiss's life-long friend the day before; Irving's remained closed.
“[The pedestrians] reacted to the ‘closed’ sign. They were asking me why,” says Brookline Police officer Sunny Chow, who serves as an afterschool crossing guard for the nearby Edward Devotion School. “They were real concerned. That's how much of an impact she has on our community.”
“[The students] all come after school,” Chow continues. “They can't wait to get out to come over here.”
That much is apparent by about 3 p.m. when as many as half a dozen kids flock in at once. They exercise the delicious freedom of unsupervised spending, bee-lining for the candy bins. Some know Weiss by her first name, Ethel.
“One, two, three, four,” she counts the chocolate bars placed in her lap by one boy. “That's a lot of candy. You're not going to eat it all this afternoon, are you?” She makes change from a box at her side. Though bent by her 96 years she is straight in her mannerisms. Her raspy laugh must be coaxed out, yet something about Weiss – and it is difficult to say what – exudes amusement.
Sugar-hungry hands reach for Mallo Cups, Jujyfruits, Chuckles and Chiclets. A few paces beyond are bags of marbles and birthday banners of vintage make, jigsaw puzzles and jump ropes, rubber duckies and yo-yos. Slinky and Silly Putty boast “THE ORIGINAL,” – a conceivable claim in a place like this.
As for the oldest item in the store? Weiss is unsure. But her proudest seem to be her original posters, available in two varieties of wisdom printed on card stock: “Thoughts for a Happier Life” (1994) and “How to be Old and Still Happy” (2009). She autographs each with a personalized message to the buyer.
Think pleasantly about your work and do the best job you can, reads the older sign within its list of simple guidelines.
Born in Virginia and raised in Portland, Maine, Weiss came to the area as a young adult. Her first husband, Irving Kravetz, was then out of a job, so the pair bought the boutique at 371 Harvard St. Back then, says Weiss, it spanned just half its present, pocket-sized dimensions.
Although still tiny, the shop – named, of course, after Kravetz – has kept Weiss busy. “I like the fact that it's little,” she says. “This is enough for my head.”
And no wonder, since she operates solo and does all her own bookkeeping, including a hand-written list of low-running stock. Until a month ago when she ordered a new register (“It's got so many buttons on it!”), she even added sales tax by careful hand.
According to her daughter Anita Jamieson, of Brookline, the concrete business aspect has always been Weiss's forte. Meanwhile Kravetz, Jamieson's father, provided the laughs, the intimate customer interactions. He was the playful, doting parent, and she more stoic, self-controlled.
“She was a busy mother, I guess you'd say,” explains Jamieson over the phone. “I suppose she was a little bit ahead of her time, because she was very much interested in having a career.”
Two years after Kravetz's death in 1960, Weiss was remarried to Abe Weiss, who by all accounts faithfully upheld tradition at her side in the store.
Perhaps since his death, considers Jamieson, she has softened in the absence of an outgoing counterpart. “She's become kind of like everybody's grandmother,” Jamieson comments. Weiss is both finance and public relations, both technicalities and pleasantry. In Jamieson's words, “she's an institution.”
Through the sweat and brain work of bearing these dual roles, Weiss maintains that she never imagined an alternate path. “When I got here, I wanted to stay here,” she says. When Kravetz imagined opening a bowling alley, Weiss advocated for the toy box, which she recalls they “barely had enough money to buy.” Don’t buy what you can’t afford, warns her poster, but Weiss made one confident exception to this mantra. Looking back over seven decades, “I wouldn't want it any different,” she says.
Neither, evidently, would anyone else. The wall above the counter is trimmed with paper awards and certificates. One applauds devotion, another, excellence in public health. An accompanying black-and-white photograph displays a much younger Weiss standing regal in the store, which has hardly changed since. The character in the picture is unembellished yet elegant.
Weiss today, bespectacled and a little stout, wears her lips a subtle pink beneath cropped, white hair. For someone alive nearly a century, elegant is now an understatement. Care about how you look. Dress neatly and in good taste, is among the instructions in “Thoughts for a Happier Life.”
On Jan. 13, Irving’s survived its 72nd birthday under Weiss's ownership.
“I didn't make a big deal out of it,” she says. And of course, she didn't have to. “A lot of people knew,” admits Weiss, who says she even received a few cards for the occasion. Loyal fans include Philip Michelson, 46, of Brookline.
“You're nobody if you don't know Ethel,” jokes Michelson, who was a student at neighboring Devotion in the '60s and whose children are “second-generation Irving'ses.”
“It's a wonderful thing to have someone like her in a community next to a school,” Michelson says in an interview at the store, “where there's a tangible connection to what's come before you.
“I always said growing up, we had Irving's,” continues Michelson. “What are my kids going to say? 'Hey Dad, remember that CVS when I was a kid?' We're losing the fabric of communities. It's a blessing to have [Weiss] here. A blessing.”
Blessings, this woman has a few. Weiss is twice a widow and mother, both daughters born to first husband Kravetz and both now retired. She has more grandchildren than she’d like to count, and five great-grandchildren including triplets born just the other day. Despite this sturdy family tree, prospects for store inheritance are slim.
“It's my mother's store, and she has her stamp on it,” says 68-year-old Jamieson, the younger of Weiss’s two daughters, “and whatever the store is, and will be, is the time that she's there.”
“I know I can't do it,” Jamieson confesses, adding that the store is no longer realistically profitable in today's economy.
Weiss acquiesces with a double shoulder shrug. “You can't force it. They don't want to take over.” She rises from her chair to begin closing shop (She’ll end up serving four more customers in turn, after having flipped the sign to “closed”). When standing, she seems to speak louder than when seated, as if to redress wilted spine with in-tact cadence.
“You can't guarantee things will be the way you planned,” she goes on in the strengthened voice as she shuts down the register. Nevertheless it's certainly on her mind. She lives alone, prepares her own meals, and seeks company in talk radio. But each ache and pain, if she’s honest, has her contemplating.
“My legs are in trouble,” she confides between short breaths, regardless climbing the winding staircase to her second-story apartment next door to Irving's. The ascent, aided by a cheerfully sticker-swathed cane, is slow but steady. Beneath gently bowed appendages, her little cloth espadrilles stomp the cold, marble stairs with resolve.
Practice random acts of kindness without expecting repayment. And she does, as in this moment when she drops off the mail belonging to her neighbors in the apartment building, a daily ritual.
Her home is spacious for a single person, and as simple as her written and sold words of wisdom. The hardwood floors sustain an antique desk she has loved forever; a piano she no longer plays; intricately carved chairs meant for an old bridge table she lent out and never got back. Things she hopes to pass along to loved ones.
Art by her Anita adorns the walls, and so too does a framed copy of Weiss's own “Thoughts for a Happier Life.” Enjoy being you! urges the poster as its final advice.
“It's a mess,” she apologizes. On the contrary, it's as tidy as you'd expect from a woman whose life values she has boiled down to fit an 11-by-13-inch sheet of card stock.
(For more Your Town coverage of Brookline businesses, see this gallery of changes on Harvard Street.)
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.