A number of large boxes are crowded into the back room of Lou Nell's Fashions. Owner Carrie Crowson looks on as two of her employees pull out a number of Vera Bradley lunchboxes and backpacks in preparation for the upcoming tax-free weekend. The smile on the proud owner's face is inexhaustible. This is what she loves to do.
Born in Sulphur Springs, Crowson graduated from Sulphur Springs ISD in 1986 and married her husband, Larry, three years later. They have been married 24 years and have two children, daughter Kaci, 21, who will graduate from college in December and son Kade, 16, who will begin his junior year at Sulphur Springs High School this year.
Crowson's mother-in-law, Nell, opened the store in 1973. After 30 years, Nell decided to retire and approached Carrie about taking over the store. Lou Nell's couldn't have been a more perfect fit for Carrie, a fashion merchandising major,
“My dream was always to have a children's store or a ladies store,” Crowson said. “I love working here. Some of our customers have become some of my best friends, and my employees are just like my family.”
A kindergarten teacher at the time, Crowson prayed about the decision for six months before deciding that Lou Nell's would be the best thing for her family. Ten years ago, Carrie officially became the owner of Lou Nell's Fashions.
“I made a lot of changes,” Crowson noted. “It was kind of more of a mature store, and we still have that, but I've added a lot of younger lines like Miss Me jeans and the Vera Bradley collection.”
Lou Nell's carries sizes 0-26 and services many different age groups. According to Crowson, many customers have been shopping at Lou Nell's for many years, but there is also a new, growing teenage clientele as well as elementary-age customers. Now, with the addition of Vera Bradley baby, Crowson hopes she will be able to cater to an even larger clientele.
To stock Lou Nell's, Crowson attends markets in Dallas, New York and Las Vegas and plans to attend the Atlanta market this year as well. She says she tries to attend as many different markets as possible in order to have a variety of styles for her customers to choose from.
“When I go to market, I always try to picture my customers in my mind,” Crowson explained. “I buy pretty much a year in advance, so I just hope that I predict what the customers are gonna’ want a year later. I try to keep Lou Nell's fresh and new and something that Sulphur Springs will love.”
For inspiration, Crowson reads magazines and takes note of the styles in commercials. She says she loves vintage looks and tries to bring those styles into the store.
“Most of the things I put in the store are some of my favorite things,” Crowson said. “Oprah has her favorites; I have Carrie's favorites. I love to be passionate and show people some great products.”
In addition to a variety of styles to choose from, Lou Nell's provides several services to customers: free gift wrap, free local delivery and free alterations as well as wish lists, graduation and baby registries. Lou Nell's also provides a basic discount for all customers who like the store on Facebook.
When Crowson is not working at Lou Nell's, she and her husband are very involved in the Sulphur Springs community and in their church, First United Methodist of Sulphur Springs. Crowson is on the hospital’s Lights of Life Gala, has served on the Dairy Festival board in the past, and her husband has been on the chamber of commerce.
“We try to stay very active, being born and raised here,” Crowson said. “Sulphur Springs is very important to us.”
In addition to donating her time, Crowson also donates money, clothes and accessories from Lou Nell's. She holds style shows for and donates auction items to different charities, and gives interview outfits to high school girls in the business program who can't afford their own. In January, Crowson gave away a $1,200 gift certificate to a Lou Nell's customer during her “2,013 Facebook likes in 2013” contest and recently held a fashion show for four-year-old Phoebe Carmody, who is battling leukemia.
Crowson gives credit to her employees for her success and commends them for their loyalty to the company. Eva Phillips has been with Lou Nell's for 37 years. Suzie Jones, the store manager, has been with Lou Nell's eight years. Melanie Helm, Crowson's best friend, has been with the company seven years. Bonnie Gilmer, a recently hired employee, works on Saturdays. Kirstie Wallace, Crowson's niece, helps out while she is in from college for the summer. Erin Ham, a college student, models the newest additions to the store on Lou Nell's Facebook page.
Crowson and her employees live by Lou Nell's mission statement “enter a customer – exit a friend.”
“Our customers come here, and they'll sit in our backroom, or out in the floor,” Crowson said. “Some of them have their own designated chairs and they go straight to their chair, and they sit and talk with us and have snacks with us. They bring us lunch and we have lunch together. Our customers are our friends, and we could never make it in this town without loyal customers.”
Crowson said her decision to own Lou Nell's was stressful at first, because she doesn't like change, and going from stay-at-home mom and kindergarten teacher to owner of a business was huge for her. Fortunately, from the beginning, her family has been very supportive of her dream.
“Kaci and Kade would come up here after school, and I might have put them to work taking out trash or helping around here as well,” Crowson said. “They're very supportive even if they're not helping me here. They've always helped at home by doing chores and making things a little easier, because they know I do work hard.”
Crowson pulls down a collage of pictures of present and former Lou Nell's employees and former owner Nell Crowson. Her eyes bright, she explains the story behind each picture. Like an extended family, the people in the photos have come to mean the world to Crowson. She lingers a moment on the pictures before placing the collage back in its proper place. She returns to the front of the store and speaks with a customer, her smile back in place.
Lou Nell's is located on 122 Lee St. and is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
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