By Paul Guzzo
Tampa Tribune, Fla.
As a child, Helen Cabrera wore T-shirts and jeans more than dresses.
Rather than walking the aisle in an elegant gown, she eloped via notary at 15.
She left high school to start a family, missing her senior prom and yet another chance to don a flowing dress.
Yet somehow, she grew up to become the Tampa version of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, peddling gowns to countless young women — first at Two Sisters Dress Shop, 4115 N. Armenia, and later at Helen Cabrera’s Dress Shop, 5110 N. Armenia Ave.
“I’ve spent almost 60 years in the dress business,” Cabrera said. “I’ve sold a lot of dresses to women for special days.”
As of today, she has sold her last dress. The shop is closing and Cabrera is putting away her needle and thread.
“What I’ll miss most is making girls happy,” she said. “And we have made a lot of girls happy.”
Some girls have purchased prom dresses and returned years later with a high school daughter in tow.
“I have enjoyed every year. But now I’m 91 and I’ve had enough,” Cabrera said. “It’s become too much for me.”
Prices are marked down as much as 60 percent.
Whatever is left inside her 3,500-square-foot shop will be sold to a liquidator.
“I hope we sell what’s left but there is a lot left,” she said. “I like to see where these dresses go. I like to see people smiling after they buy one.”
Her business model has changed over the years. Initially, she focused on casual wear. But as discount clothing stores began opening up throughout the city, she needed to find a new niche.
Her daughter and only child Lucy Turner, who has worked at the shop since 1971, suggested adding wedding dresses.
“Salesmen came in all the time with wedding dresses but she resisted,” said Turner, 74, mother of eight and wife of Billy Turner, retired longtime football coach at Chamberlain High School. “But when she realized she needed to change she did. She’s a smart businesswoman. Always has been.”
The first bride Cabrera sold a dress to was a granddaughter.
At the peak of business in the 1980s, Cabrera’s store was so busy customers had to take numbers to get into a dressing room. She needed three other seamstresses on staff to make alterations.
But business has again dwindled with more competition. The store could keep making a profit, she insists, but she no longer has the drive.
“I’m ready to do other things,” she said. “I think I’ve earned it.”
Born Helen Mendez in West Tampa in 1923, she is the youngest of five siblings and nine years the junior of her next closest kin.
She was 5 when her mother, Josefa Mendez, taught her to sew.
“We used the sacks that held the feed for our cow,” she said. “We made curtains, sheets and my dad’s underwear.”
She was so small she had to sit on the very edge of the stool to reach the sewing machine’s foot pedal and had to crane her neck to see the needle.
While her mother taught her the skills for her future career, she inherited her artistry from her father Jose Mendez.
Once employed by the Morgan Cigar Factory in West Tampa, he rolled every cigar to look exactly alike, she said.
“He was a perfectionist,” she said. “Watching him work gave you goose bumps.”
She wanted to wear dresses as a little girl but money was tight.
So when her only daughter was born a year into her marriage, Cabrera spoiled her with a wardrobe of handmade dresses she made by creating her own patterns from newspaper advertisements.
“I made her sun dresses and dinner dresses and gowns for Christmas,” Cabrera said. “She was my little doll.”
Her years of experience sewing from home enabled her to get a job at 21 as a seamstress with Sherman’s Dress Shop. The downtown Tampa store was considered the most elegant in the city, said daughter Turner.
In 1957, at 32, Cabrera opened Two Sisters Dress Shop with her older sister Manuela Diaz. After 12 years in business together, they went their separate ways.
Two years later, Cabrera opened the shop that bears her name.
She has considered retirement a few times over the years — once in the 1990s, again about 10 years ago and then seven years ago when her husband Mario Cabrera passed away.
“I was never ready,” she said. “But I am now.”