The business makeover reality television shows love to highlight the sad, dramatic stories of down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs, and Leslie Thomas has faced her share of hardship.
But really, the owner of Leslie’s Boutique on Buffalo’s East Side was just looking for a little extra help. And thanks to a grassroots organization and a group of enterprising college students and volunteers, she received it this fall with a full store makeover, including a glowing new façade and interior that came after a series of devastating setbacks.
Thomas, who turned 60 this week, prefers to focus on the blessings she sees happening across Buffalo’s East Side. She doesn’t like to dwell on the burst pipes that forced her to close in 2013, which led to further electrical and structural problems at her Fillmore Avenue thrift shop and kept her store closed for most of the previous three years.
The Open Storefront Makeover Program, through the nonprofit organization Fillmore Forward, brought together SUNY Buffalo State College design students, trade guilds, flooring professionals, and community members, all volunteering their time, allowing Thomas to finally reopen her store in early September.
“It breathed new life into the store,” Thomas said. “A lot of people have been amazed. They come inside and it looks like a department store … once you’re inside, you say, ‘Wow!’”
Fillmore Forward volunteers cleared out the store and put a floor plan together, then redid walls, floors, and light fixtures inside. They repainted the façade in front and trimmed the windows. Thomas was able to participate in the design of the floor plan.
“It was big. Very big,” Thomas says about the project. “Bigger than it was supposed to be. So many people were involved.”
The Open Storefront program seeks to boost underutilized space in the Fillmore-Broadway and Martin Luther King communities to encourage entrepreneurial growth by pairing business owners with artists, architects, trade groups, and volunteers.
The program is a collaboration with the Junior League of Buffalo, Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters - Carpenters Local 276 and 251, The Western New York Floor Company, community volunteers, and students from SUNY Buffalo State College’s interior design class.
Thomas, who has lived on the East Side for 29 years, says she hopes to see more people come together in partnership across Buffalo in the same way that they did for her two months ago.
“It’s our time again,” Thomas says about the Fillmore neighborhood. “I advise anybody that is trying to get in, to start a business, it’s not as bad as you hear … You have to look at the whole picture of Buffalo and the East Side is part of that movement.
“Jump on the bandwagon and bring the East Side back alive,” Thomas adds.
The storefront program doesn’t just benefit Thomas. She says her thrift shop was an important resource for elderly residents to find warm clothing and young parents who need baby clothes. She says she has suits and women’s clothing available and right now donations are pouring in, even if business has slowed during the late fall season before the holidays.
But with the store now open, East Side’s needy residents have a place to turn to find affordable clothing. And she says that the store has plenty of curb appeal for people walking by, who have wondered for years when Leslie’s store would reopen.
Thomas admits her shop could use a little advertising, and maybe a social media presence would make it easier to find. She also works at a second job, and she explains that finding help to run the place can be difficult.
Fillmore Forward is made up of four volunteering committees that plan and implement projects focusing on economic restructuring, design, promotion, and organization in two East Side neighborhoods. It’s community-driven, and the organization is always seeking volunteers. The hope is to encourage a positive business environment which will provide jobs and act as a catalyst for development.
Thomas says the organization approached her about the storefront makeover program.
“I do have a sad story, but I didn’t want to piggy back. I just wanted some help. They came and I couldn’t believe it,” she says.