- November 29, 2017
Toni Auteri believes that the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten. There’s a sign that says as much hanging in her shop, European Alterations by Toni and Toni’s Too. But the shop itself has remained long after much on St. Armands Circle has been forgotten or lost to time. Last month, Auteri and her family celebrated 40 years on the Circle.
Auteri has been driving over the bridge from Sarasota to the islands for 54 years, back when doing so often meant waiting for a drawbridge. She came from Italy when she was young and began working in Westmoreland’s, a high-end women’s fashion store on the Circle.
“It was very exclusive, but all the Circle was 40 years ago,” daughter Toni Coit said.
Auteri was born in Italy and has been sewing since she was 12. She’s now 85 and still works full-time altering clothes. Her mother and grandmother were in the alteration business, too. Auteri’s daughters say it’s a dying art.
“It’s in the family,” Auteri said. “I don’t know anything else. Anybody can sew, but the knowledge I have of fitting, no one has. If you bring in a size 14 dress and you’re a size 6, I can do it.”
After 14 years at Westmoreland’s, Auteri and her husband started their own business. The owners of Westmoreland’s encouraged her, and Auteri took several of the women, who were her sisters — in the alteration shop with her.
“She used to bring me and (my sister) Tina (Bazell) to work with her and it was all her and her sisters at the alteration shop,” Coit said. “This has always been a family thing, even when she worked elsewhere.”
Daughter Tina Bazell started working in the store when she was taking college classes and never left. She’s been working there 37 years. Coit, meanwhile, was working in a department store and didn’t have much of an interest in the alterations side. However, when her mother began bringing clothes into the shop when she came back from trips to Italy, her interest was piqued. She’s been there 35 years. Along the way, they’ve picked up multiple generations of customers, too.
“When somebody comes through the door, we know who she is,” Auteri said. “You know where she comes from, we know the kids.”
And now, there’s a third generation in Toni’s Too. Bianca Scheip was a newborn in the store and now works alongside her mother (Coit), aunt and grandmother. A whole generation was raised in the back rooms of the store — five in total (three from Coit, two from Bazell) grew up at the store until they went off to school. It helped that they had a few part-time babysitters in the other women who worked in the alteration shop.
“The girls in the back would help out,” Coit said. “They would hold the babies or feed them. It was helping out the family, which was the business.”
Sometimes, the women worked the floor of the shop with a baby in their arms. That never bothered customers, though.
“They like that it’s a family operation,” Coit said. “It was OK, that we had a baby in our arms. It didn’t take away from the the high vibe of the store. The family brought a warm atmosphere.”
At the shop, not much has changed over 40 years (despite two location changes). Everything around them, though, has changed drastically, mom said. Years ago, people dressed up to go to the Circle. As the years have gone by and more tourists flocked to the area, the vibe got more casual.
“This isn’t a small town anymore,” Coit said.
The world has changed to be more casual too, the women noted, so they try to match the casual vibe with elegance.
“We never relied on the tourist or snowbird,” Bazell said. “We’ve always been off the beaten path, not on the main Circle. We don’t rely on foot traffic.”
Other customers come on recommendations from other clothing shops on the Circle or from longtime friends. Customers will save up clothes just to get them altered at Toni’s Too when they can. Their clientele is fiercely loyal and will come by just to sit and talk, or get opinions from the generations of style in the store. Auteri likes reminiscing with the families they’ve known for years.
“It’s nice to talk to someone from way back,” Auteri said. “When I think about it, 40 years. Where did they go?”