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Owner of Mr. Charles Shop Looks Back on Store's Long Run

by on April 26, 2014 6:00 AM

It's a bittersweet time for the owner of Mr. Charles. The women's clothing store is closing its doors after a remarkable 74-year run.

On May 31, Charlene Rosen, owner of the store on 228 E. College Avenue for the past 24 years, will say a final farewell to the place she called home.

As the daughter of the original store owners Charles and Mary Louise Petnick, Rosen grew up in State College, and remembers helping her parents at the store when she was a little girl.

“I’ll miss this,” she says, gesturing to the racks of clothing and carefully designed mannequins. ”I’ll miss hearing the stories people come in and talk about. When they were here 40 years ago, and just graduating, and bought their going away outfit when they got married. Things like that are very emotional.”

From an early age, Rosen knew she wanted to pursue a career in fashion. At the age of 12, she was finally allowed to wait on customers, and fell in love with the endless possibilities of clothing. She remembers her parents taking her to showrooms in New York City, and being awestruck by the level of passion from both buyers and designers alike.

While Rosen says she's sad to see the end of her family's store, a State College staple since 1940, she's ready to move on to the next stage of her life.

"It's a very complicated feeling, very mixed emotions," says Rosen. "I'm getting older, and it was just time. You go through stages in life, and there was a readiness."

"Obviously it's very sad, and yet it's a good time for me, because I'm ready to do other things."

Now based in New York, Rosen says she'll be concentrating on building a bigger presence at "trunk shows", events in which vendors present merchandise and clothing directly to customers. After learning how to buy and sell from her parents (not to mention close to 30 years of experience owning her own clothing store), Rosen is confident in her ability to tackle the fashion world head on.

"That's what makes it interesting," says Rosen when asked about staying on top of the latest trends. "Somebody might say to me, 'Why do you keep doing it? Aren't you bored?' It's never boring, because you can have a great season, but that doesn't mean the next season is going to be good. You can pick winners one season, but you have to constantly be alert and on top of things."

Having the freedom to take her clothing on the road to Pittsburgh, Shaker Heights, and the exclusive trunk show in Charlottesville, Virginia, Rosen is excited to meet new people and share her ideas without the responsibility of running a store hanging over her head.

"I love the idea now of not having huge rent and huge overhead," she says. "I think the way to go is what I'm doing, and I'm not doing it on a whim. It's something I've prepared for."

"I'm going to use all those tools, and all the work and effort that I used to build it up, and make it even bigger," she adds.

While ready to embrace the next challenge, Rosen would be remiss to not remember all the men and women who've frequented the store over the years, many of which have become close friends.

"Through the years we've built these relationships that's beyond a customer," she says. "We've had phone calls, we've had emails from all over. We're on Facebook, and people write and say, 'Oh no, I'm sorry. I'm gonna miss it!' and they'll talk about a favorite moment that they had. It's a fascinating thing."

Of course, Rosen has built enough memories to last a lifetime. While in State College to perform a concert at Penn State, popular singer and actress Cher stopped by to visit the store, and ended up sending her assistant back three straight days to purchase items.

Her fondest memory, however, is of Guy F. Tozzoli, the man who lead the team of engineers that built the Twin Towers in New York City. She remembers Tozzoli stopping in to buy something for his wife. Having spent a lot of time in New York City and other big cities across the country, he was accustomed to expensive brands like Valentino, a lavish brand of clothing created by Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani.

"I said, I appreciate you coming in, but I don't have that price point at all," she recalls.

Tozzoli told Rosen the story of how he visited Mr. Charles Shop when it first opened on Allen Street. At the time it was just a men's store, but Tozzoli went in looking for nylon stockings to give to his girlfriend. During World War II, nylons were almost impossible to come by, but Rosen's father kept a few upstairs, hidden from view. So Tozzoli bought a pair, went back to New York, and surprised his significant other with the gift, winning her heart with a little help from Mr. Charles himself.

"That was one of the most priceless moments," says Rosen.

Along with customers, the employees of Mr. Charles Shop share have fond memories of their own.

Veronica Burk, a Polish immigrant who moved to State College with her husband, Frank, an engineer with Corning Glass, has worked as the store's manager for the past 30 years. After working careers in art and nursing, including some time at the American Embassy, Burk settled in the small university town - a place she never heard of coming from Poland.

After walking around town, she was intrigued by look of Mr. Charles Shop. She spoke to a Polish girl who worked at the store, and was encouraged to apply. She was hired on the spot, by Mr. Charles himself.

"I came with my resume and talked to Mr. Charles," she remembers. "He said, well, you are well over-qualified, and he looked me over and said, 'Can you start today?' And 30 plus years later, I'm still here."

Citing art as one of her first loves, Burk says she was attracted by the freedom to express her creativity. One of her favorite jobs was designing the mannequins in the window and she always enjoyed receiving compliments from customers.

It's just one of the many things Burk is going to miss.

"I'm going to certainly miss clothing, I'm going to miss touching the fresh merchandise - the cashmeres, the silks - and I'm certainly going to miss customers. Many of them became my very, very good friends," says Burk. "But I think it's time - even for me. I'm looking forward with anticipation to something new."

While the closing of the store is "bittersweet", Burk believes the legacy will continue with fond memories and stories amongst friends.

"The uniqueness of the store is the uniqueness of the store," she says. "That's what hit me when I moved into town. There was no other store like that with fabulous things. We have eclectic things, and are so forward with the fashion."

"I don't think there's going to be another store like it."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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