October 6, 2022


We Bring Good Things to Life

McClellan: A broken zipper can be fatal for a pair of shorts | Bill McClellan

Not long ago, I got a new passport. You probably know how that works. You send your old one to the passport office along with your application and a new photo, and they send you your new passport. You also get your old one back with a couple of holes in it.

A passport is good for 10 years. I am vain enough to wonder how the old me would compare to the new me. It has been a tough 10 years — a couple of bouts with cancer and a couple of strokes. Also, I am at an age where 10 years means something.

With some trepidation, I looked at the two photos. Guess what? I was wearing the same shirt.

I like that about myself. I stand proudly in opposition to the throw-away society.

So it was with some sadness that I noticed last week, as I began transitioning from my winter wardrobe to my summer, that two of my three pairs of shorts have broken zippers. A broken zipper can be fatal to a pair of pants. A broken zipper is not like a missing button on a shirt. You can ignore a missing button. Most people don’t even notice. More importantly, a seamstress can replace a missing button. There are a million buttons in the world. Zippers can be harder to find.

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I learned that a few years ago. I took a pair of pants with a broken zipper to a seamstress whose shop is above a dry cleaners near my house. She was watching television when I walked into her shop. I showed her the broken zipper. I can’t help you, she said. She explained that zippers were hard to come by. People don’t sew any more, she said.

Frankly, I wondered about her. I once took a shirt with a missing button to her and she found one that nearly matched the other buttons and sewed it on to my shirt. She charged me $3. How can she pay her rent? She never seems busy. I thought that maybe the seamstress shop was a front. Maybe she was really a fortune teller. A few well-paying customers is all she would need.

By the way, those pants were saved when I wrote a column about the scarcity of zippers. A salesman from Ely E. Yawitz called me. We have plenty of zippers, he said. The company was in the 1700 block of Olive Street. It had been founded by Ely Yawitz in 1924 and served the then-thriving garment industry on Washington Avenue. Yawitz had two daughters, and their husbands went into the family business. By the time I dropped by for a zipper in 2007, the two husbands had retired and one of their nephews was running the business. His name was Richard Sklar.

I asked him if there was a shortage of zippers. He shrugged. We sold about 250,000 of them last year, he said.

I bought one and took it to the seamstress. She was watching television again — still? — when I stopped by. She charged me $10 to sew it on the pants.

So when I noticed that the zippers were broken on two pairs of shorts, I decided to call Yawitz. The phone number was out of service. Yawitz had merged with another company. Sklar had died in 2009. I found an obituary from the Jewish Light. Sklar was a lifelong St. Louisan and a graduate of Washington University. He had had season tickets to the football Cardinals. He was fiercely proud of his hometown. On the night of his funeral, after the shiva crowd thinned, a group of friends and relatives went to Ted Drewes. His son Randy said, “And that night, in a fitting tribute to my dad, we raised our concretes, turned upside down, and toasted a life well lived.”

Such a St. Louis thing to do. Sometimes it is hard not to love this town. I was tempted to drive to Ted Drewes myself, but first I had to do something about those broken zippers.

I thought of the Busy Bee. Maria Mathias is the seamstress. Like Ely Yawitz, she is an immigrant. She was born in Panama. She arrived in this country in 1986. She ended up in St. Louis. She found work as a seamstress. She was working for a shop in downtown Clayton when the owners decided they were moving. The owner of the building approached Maria and said she could have the space for a very reasonable rent. She decided to go for it. The year was 1991.

Shortly before she opened her shop, she noticed a swarm of honey bees buzzing around her window. “Abejas ocupadas,” she said to herself. Busy bees. Hopefully, she’d be busy, too. She named her shop Busy Bee Alterations and Shoe Repair. She was busy.

In 2008, Clayton OK’d a condo development at the corner of Central and Maryland. The Busy Bee was just down the street on Maryland. It would have to go.

I wrote a column about the situation. Maria was philosophical. “It’s progress,” she told me. “They are not going to stop because Maria is here.”

She found a new location on Forsyth about a block away. She is next to Jon’s Pipe Shop. It is like a small wrinkle in time — a seamstress and a pipe shop in the midst of all the new construction in downtown Clayton. How appropriate that an enemy of the throw-away society would seek comfort there.

I stopped by the Busy Bee last week. There was a sign on the door that said that even though mask mandates were no longer in effect for vaccinated people, management required a mask. Fortunately, I had one in the car. I got it and went inside. There was Maria, alone in her shop. She was not wearing a mask. Oh well.

I had brought one of the pairs of shorts with me. The zipper is broken, I said. Can you fix it?

“I can put on a new zipper,” she said. “Twenty five dollars.”

I am not sure how much a new pair of shorts would be, but really, this wasn’t about money. This was about principle.

Cash, said Maria. In advance.

I put a 20 and a five on the table.

Next Wednesday, said Maria.

I left the Busy Bee with a feeling of accomplishment. I hadn’t felt this good since the day I got my new passport.