Ten years ago, as Dover’s Merle Norman studios celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Capital City, owner Helen McCusker and crew dressed up in poodle skirts and other 1950s finery to celebrate.
Next week, as McCusker and staff observe Merle Norman’s 60th year in Dover, they won’t be sporting bell bottoms and love beads, but they’ll still be showing everyone a good time.
In a weeklong anniversary celebration, beginning Monday, and ending with a party on Oct. 12, McCusker will be offering a drawing for gift certificates for Merle Norman products and a Saturday door prize. All of that, plus, of course, the famous line of beauty wares that have been available ever since Merle Norman herself mixed up the first batch of cleansing cream on her kitchen stove back in 1928.
Then, as now, all Merle Norman products are made in the United States.
Dover has had a Merle Norman Studio in town since the late Gerald D. “Jerry” Mills opened his first store on Oct. 15, 1953, on South Bradford Street.
Mills entered the beauty business after a hitch in the U.S. Army Air Corps because as a youngster his complexion was so bad, “I was embarrassed to go out,” he said in a 2003 interview.
After 37 years in business, Mills sold his franchise and retired in 1990; McCusker and her husband Mike bought the business five years later and moved it to the Gateway West Shopping Center in May 2001.
It was a big leap of faith for McCusker, who had gone to school in Dover but left after graduation for a career in business. She returned to the state capital in 1992 after her marriage to Mike and was working for Citicorp when the new owner of Mills’ store decided to sell.
McCusker, who had learned about Merle Norman products from Mills and had been using them since she was a teenager at Holy Cross High School, figured it was time to take the leap.
“I always felt that if I wanted to do anything in business, it would be to own a Merle Norman Studio,” she said.
Although she’d never worked in retail – “not even at McDonalds” – she felt good about the decision.
“The timing was right,” she said. “It took a lot of prayer and a lot of research, but I had a lot of support, especially from my husband.
“You ask yourself: ‘Are we going to jump off this cliff or not?’ so we jumped.”
After buying the franchise, McCusker attended two weeks of training at corporate headquarters, then redecorated the store, which was on Loockerman Street at the time. She found many of Mills’ original customers made their way to her door, as well as their daughters and granddaughters.
Page 2 of 2 - That trend continues today.
McCusker remembers the store’s first year “went by in a blur,” but then again, so have many of the following years.
With the company deciding to freshen up its image at the beginning of the 21st century, McCusker also decided on a fresh start with her move to Gateway.
“The company had come up with a whole new look and we decided it was a good idea to start with a new facility,” she said.
The work can be tiring, but it’s also a lot of fun.
“I go home at night, and sometimes I’m exhausted, but I realize, hey, it’s all mine,” she said. “It’s a good sign that even coming back after a vacation, I’m excited whenever I put the key in the door.”
And what does the future look like?
Merle Norman Studios held its own during the recession, and business is strong, McCusker said.
“But someday, I’d like to turn over ownership to someone who loves it as much as I do,” she said. “I plan to celebrate our 70th anniversary in Dover, as an owner or as a customer.”
McCusker and beauty consultants Michaelene Hartmann and Terri Stoakley will be holding their anniversary celebration during normal business hours next week. In addition to the door prizes and gift certificates, she’ll be sharing a journal started 10 years ago with thoughts from customers at that time.