My favorite place to shop was Bloomingdale’s, until I found Celli’s grab bag, a gift boutique in Mall 2 at Rochdale Village, a cooperative housing complex in Jamaica, Queens. True, the jewelry bags, jewelry boxes, scarves and hats in the window caught my eye. But once inside, it was warm and soft spoken Mrs Celestine Smelley, affectionately known as Celli, who won me over.
“I’ve always been a lover of people,” Celli says, trying to explain herself. “Being very sensitive to everyone’s feelings, not wanting mine to be hurt, I developed a great deal of patience. My mother used to say that I had the patience of Job, which made me move kind of slow, but that’s part of my charm.”
Celli greets all of her customers with a smile and a friendly “May I help you?” If they wish, she patiently assists them in making choices. Using her acquired knowledge of fashion from Needle Trades high school and keeping abreast of fashion trends, she makes suggestions about what looks good with what. “I always give an honest opinion,” she says, “even if it means losing a sale.”
One day, this year, I had planned to purchase a necklace and a bracelet to complement a black velvet jumpsuit, spangled with jewels. Celli looked at the jumpsuit and said “I would love to sell you something, but you don’t need anything to wear with this except expressive earrings.” I was surprised by her reply but, after considering her advice, I agreed with it. What is more, I was pleasantly surprised at her for not trying to just make the sale. These are the reasons why, she both said, “All my customers have become my friends.” Another is her willingness to become involved in community service. In the recent co-op election, Celli and five fellow candidates won seats on the Board of Directors. Celli received the most votes.
As for the boutique, it’s a trove of colorful silk scarves, jewelry baubles and beads, shiny gold chains, sparkling crystals, RT brass necklaces, and black cameo pins. There are sassy hats and bad boy caps; chic pocketbooks, soft leather bags and jeweled evening clutches. Two new hot items have just arrived. One is a gold epaulet dripping with gold and silver beads that is worn over one shoulder. The other is a jeweled cape that can be also worn as a shawl, or a peplum on a dress or a suit. Inspirational gifts, such as the book I dream a World by Brian Lanker and children’s poems on education, how to earn money and prayers are displayed prices are reasonable.
Celli started her business 18 years ago, after her husband died leaving her to raise two-year-old son, Evan, who is now 22 years old and a member of the New York City police force. “I never dreamed of having a business,” says Celli , who previously worked as a sales representative at AT&T. ” But a friend encouraged me to join her in this venture, and after she left, I took up the challenge of developing a business myself. In doing so, I learned that God wanted me to be here. So now I feel that this is His business. He has entrusted it to me and I am not going to let him down.” According to her, He has never let me down.”
Being sensitive, Celli never fails to be concerned about the spirit of her customers. “Sometimes patrons come through that door with a heavy heart,” she says, adding “sometimes I have a heavy heart.” For these reasons she sometimes plays inspirational music in the store, music like Amazing Grace song by Aretha Franklin. At times, she helps youngsters shopping for Christmas. “You can tell they have saved up all year for this.” She says smiling. “They come in with the pennies, just like they saved them. So I wrap their gifts especially nice for them. They get special attention.” But then again, everybody gets special attention from Celli – that’s her old fashion charm.
Business hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM-6 PM. Telephone (718) 723-1200.
See the original layout of Routes, A Guide to Black Entertainment November 18, 1991 as pdf.