By Maria Maxham
After almost 30 years as the owner of Camille et Famille, RoseMary Gange is retiring and closing the doors of an apparel and accessories shop that became a gathering place.
"It has been a real gift," said Gange about her long-running business. "When I first opened Camille et Famille, my goal was income, not the rich wonderful life I've had. Not the glorious coworkers and customers that have become like family."
Gange is the kind of person who makes you feel at home. Her welcoming energy belies her 69 years.
"I want people to know they're capable of anything. I want women to feel good about themselves no matter their age. I want them to feel better when they leave my store, to buy things that make them look great now, not after they lose the 20 pounds they've wanted to lose for years."
Her passion to make her customers feel at home and better about themselves began when she started her business in 1990, opening a shop in Oak Park.
"I knew nothing when I first opened," said Gange with a laugh. "I wanted to surround myself with beautiful things that were mostly American made.
"I sold lots of Christmas ornaments then. People would send me photos of their family opening Camille boxes. They would come into the store to buy ornaments that represented facets of their lives. Being part of people's celebrations was incredibly meaningful."
She added purses and jackets, which sold well. When she moved into a bigger space in 1992, she decided to add clothing.
"Again, I knew nothing about it." She started going to apparel shows to look for clothing she liked. "I wanted a good price range so it could be a community store."
The day she began selling clothes, almost everything sold, and she knew the decision was a good one.
In 1994, Gange opened a branch of her store in Oak Brook. In 1996, as business kept picking up, she expanded her Oak Park shop into the space next door. Two years later, she opened another shop in Park Ridge.
"I had my three-store chain." But by 2000, she knew she either had to "go big or go home." Going big meant she'd have to open at least two more shops, since that was the formula for success for chain stores. Instead, she decided to "go home" and focus on her Oak Park shop. She closed all but that location.
Business was good, but in 2008 when her landlord doubled her rent and the economy collapsed, she closed shop. When the stock market crashed, she knew she'd made the right decision.
As the economy slowly recovered, she opened her store again in 2010, this time in Forest Park.
Gange, who has lived in Oak Park since 1971, enjoyed her time in Forest Park. "It has a more urban vibe," she said. "The village is incredible. [The administrators and staff at village hall] have been so easy and accommodating."
"I feel like I've become part of the fabric of the town," she said. Customers, hearing about her retirement, have come into the shop hugging her and crying. Over the years, she's received invites to parties from customers who were buying new clothes or partyware for their events.
"There are people I will never see again," she said. "It breaks my heart. I will miss them."
She'll also miss being an integral part of people's lives when they come in to shop for important events. "My goal has always been to make women feel good about themselves," said Gange. "I'm always honest about how clothes look on people who try things on. If something doesn't look good, I'll tell them, but always with a suggestion of something I know will look great on their body shape."
Despite some sadness, she's happy to be retiring on her own terms. "Financially, it's been our best year ever in Forest Park," she said.
The shop will be open into December, and she's planning a retirement party at Camille et Famille on Dec. 12 at 5 p.m. "I want customers to wear something they bought at the store. Even if it's something from decades ago," she said.
Camille is Gange's middle name, and "Et Famille" means "and family." And family has been a big part of her business over the years. "Everyone's worked here," she said. Her daughter and two sons have contributed, as have her mother-in-law and father-in-law, husband and grandchildren.
"But 'family' also applies to my employees and customers," she said. "It's been a wonderful experience."
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