A long-standing fixture of downtown Great Barrington’s retail mix is closing after 43 years.
Annie Minifie, owner of Byzantium, has announced that she will be closing the long-established women’s clothing and accessories store in January following a sell-off. She founded Byzantium in 1979 with headquarters at 32 Railroad St.
Minifie said the store is still doing well. However, changes in the general business climate since the COVID pandemic and their personal priorities caused them to close.
“It was an instant decision, although 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 that this was the right time to do it.”
She noted that the pandemic and resulting economic volatility in recent years has changed conditions in the apparel industry, increasing the pressure and demands of running a business like Byzantium.
At the same time, she also had to focus on personal matters, including making 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 in the shop while still having a personal life. But the changes and pressures of the past three years have required full immersion in the business. Also, other circumstances required my attention and I was going in too many directions at once.”
Additionally, she 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 they initially hoped to sell Byzantium, this did not happen.
“I had prepared a comprehensive plan with all the details about the business so that a new owner could get started right away,” she said. “But then Covid came and threw that plan off track.”
The way to the shopkeeper
Raised in Annapolis, Maryland, Minifie moved to New York City as a young adult and also spent some time in Europe. She’s held a variety of jobs, including modeling and film editing — and at legendary nightclub Max’s Kansas City.
In search of a change, she eventually moved to the Berkshires, which she knew 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 as a drop-in center employee.
She moved into retail in 1979 and found it to align with a number of her own interests.
“I wasn’t really happy with what I had done, and I was like, ‘What now?’ moment,” she recalls. “I saw this building and the space immediately attracted me. I decided to open Byzantium on a whim.”
This whim turned into a decade-long career.
Minifie credited her landlord, Richard Stanley, with helping her open the store. “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 their business has undergone many changes over time, Minifie has stuck to their original business strategy. Their approach has been to offer a diverse range of women’s clothing and accessories, catering to the needs and desires of different customers – a mix of locals, part-time workers and tourists – for casual everyday wear, work wear and attire for special occasions.
She has made a point of stocking 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’re not a discounter, but we do offer clothing that is inexpensive and affordable. We also offer some more expensive, high-end goods.” She also emphasized personal customer service. This has resulted in long-term customer relationships.
“Running a business in Great Barrington is wonderful because you are a witness and participant in all aspects of life,” she said. “We have been caring for families for several generations. We have dressed clients for their everyday activities as well as for important occasions throughout their lives.”
This sense of continuity and connection extends to her staff and the product reps she has worked with.
She started Byzantium as a one-person operation. “Originally it was just me and the inventory,” she said. “Eventually I was able to hire a part-time employee and then a full-time manager, and it grew from there.”
She built a network of full and part-time employees. It employs five full-time and part-time staff during peak season, and one full-time and one part-time staff at other times. In addition, others work as needed.
She noted that her employees include people who have been in the business for 15, 20 and even 40 years, and her children and grandchildren have also worked there — and all employees have found other employment for after the store’s closure
“It was like a big family,” she said. “One of my goals when I opened the shop was to make it a fun place to work. People were encouraged to try ideas.”
The early days in Great Barrington
When she opened Byzantium, Great Barrington was more of an everyday trading center than the trendy upscale identity it would later become.
“I chose Great Barrington because people in South Berkshire County went here to buy their necessities,” she said. “I liked that. I also saw that other interesting shops were opening and it could become a goal. I wanted to be part of the city’s growth.”
With that in mind, she and Barbara Watkins, owner of Evergreen Crafts, formed an organization called the Railroad St. Association. Other merchants got involved and it eventually grew into a general club downtown.
“We organized marketing campaigns and promotional events,” she recalls. “The aim was to encourage people to see Great Barrington as a place where they can come and shop and also stay and enjoy things like a meal at a restaurant. Gradually that started to happen and it picked up speed.”
Over the years she had to be adaptable. Byzantium has not only kept up with fashion trends, but has also experienced ups and downs in business and changes in the competitive picture and shopping patterns.
“The opening of new forms of competition such as the Lee Outlets and chain stores impacted the business and I had to change my inventory and the types of items I wear accordingly,” she said. “We also weathered the rise of e-commerce, when people would come in and take pictures of clothes to see if they could find them online.”
She said she learned many lessons over time. “A guiding principle was the importance of always having a complete inventory on hand,” she said. “I’ve done this regardless of the economy, even if it meant I had to reduce my household budget for groceries when times were tough.”
One impact of the retail growth in Great Barrington was the perception that the city was being gentrified and catering more to an upscale market than to the general population.
Minifie acknowledged that elements of this were true, but noted that it was neither a new development nor a simple situation.
“It’s been happening for a long time,” she said. “The factors that cause this kind of growth will materialize. But I believe that we as a community and as individuals can have control over how it happens depending on how we behave. I tried to do that the way I ran my business. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always stayed within a moderate price range. As some of my brands increased their wholesale prices year after year, I spent the time looking for comparable merchandise at reasonable prices.”
The impact of the COVID pandemic and subsequent changes in the economy have been a particularly challenging time, she noted.
“Like other stores, we had to close for the first few months of 2020,” she said. “We reopened this summer but it took some time for customers to return. Traffic was very good up until the summer of 2021, but then there were problems with the supply chains.”
Among other implications, she said, all of this has changed the nature of the industry, including supplier-retailer relationships and the availability of goods.
“Suppliers don’t know anything about availability anymore,” she said. “For example, I used to be able to place an order and receive the goods within a week. Now they have to commit to an order for six to eight months in certain areas before we can put it in the store.”
This unpredictability has made it difficult in many ways. “In the past, I might test an item by placing a small order for it in the spring,” she said. “If the customer response was good then I could place a larger order for the busy summer season. That is not possible now.”
Minifie said these issues are likely to be fixed over time. “I’m an optimist, and I expect things will come back,” she said.
If this situation had happened in the past, she would have done whatever it took to get through the deal. “But I don’t have the drive or energy for it right now,” she said.
She emphasized that while she will miss the business and relationships with her employees and customers, she sees this as a positive move.
“I have no regrets,” she said. “It was a great run. This business was 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.”