Ask any resident in Middletown, and they’ll tell you sitting in traffic on Main Street is an everyday occurrence.
But one light, at least, at the intersection of Broad and Main, provided a distraction in the form of champagne satin, frothy tulle and glinting rhinestones. But the bell that used to ring once a bride said ‘yes to the dress’ is now silent.
“I miss that sound,” says Louise Marie Bridal owner Mary Bowers-Johnson.
In business for 14 years—nine of which were spent anchoring a corner of Main Street in Middletown—the bridal boutique is shuttering.
“We pulled from brides from all over the state, but even far outside, like Ohio, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and D.C.,” says Bowers-Johnson.
Celebrities, too: Once, after country singer and professional wrestler Mickie James had her tour bus rerouted through town after an accident on 95, she found herself stopped out front of Louise Marie, fell in love with a gown in the window and went in and bought it on the spot.
“We have so many cool stories like that, and times where we’ve gone what I would describe as above and beyond for clients,” Bowers-Johnson says. “We also had a nice following of First Responder and military brides that we especially tried to do all we could for.”
Pre-pandemic, Bowers-Johnson and her business partner noted dwindling sales during prom season, as prom-goers were choosing avenues like Facebook Marketplace or borrowing from friends versus the traditional boutique-buying experience.
“We had fair prices and great designers for our prom side of the businesses, and in a good year, we’d sell about 250 to 300 dresses, which, for a small shop like this, is big,” says Bowers-Johnson.
Bridesmaids, too, were disrupting the traditional buying model with sites like Azazie, which offers low-priced dresses and an at-home-trial option, creating another drop in business.
“We couldn’t compete with that,” Bowers-Johnson says. “And to put things in perspective, this prom season, with all the cancellations, we sold five dresses—and they weren’t even all picked up.”
Bowers-Johnson was working on streamlining the store to a bridal salon only when the pandemic hit.
“We started having this conversation in February,” she says. “Then we were shut down in March, and could not operate for 54 days. And once Phase 2 began, we were allowed to have one bride in the store at a time. With all the cleaning we had to do in between clients, we could see maybe three or four brides one day. And it’s not like they all bought a gown.”
When pre-Covid brides began to postpone their weddings—and therefore their payments—until 2021, Bowers-Johnson knew the writing was on the wall.
It was on the windows, too.
Bowers-Johnson caused a small-town stir when she scrawled on her windows in bold, white chalk paint phrases like “STORE CLOSING BECAUSE THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS COULDN’T WORK WITH PRESDIENT TRUMP” and “STORE CLOSING. SCREW CARNEY, PELOSI, BIDEN, HARRIS AND HILLARY.”
“How can a small business be expected to survive when it makes zero money for 54 days?” she asks. “And Carney keeps extending the Phase 2 another 30 days and another 30 days. We couldn’t come back.”
She says some folks pulled up and honked their horns and gave thumbs-up before her realtors told her the message had to go. “Even a local police officer shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you. Finally, someone said it.’”
Support shifted once the photos made their way online.
“Social media is the worst thing to ever happen,” she says. “People around here just got so vicious. Not town government or the other businesses, just town people.”
Brides have been vocal, too, writing messages on the store’s Facebook page that allege they are being forced to pay for their dress again, at a different store, if they want to walk down the aisle.
“I’m working on getting refunds out as quickly as I can,” says Bowers-Johnson. “[Designer] Maggie Sottero has been really difficult to work with. As soon as I told them I was closing, they refused to send the dresses to me, and are making brides go to another shop to pay for their dress in full, on top of the money they’ve already given me. I have given out my personal cell phone to brides: I don’t know how much more I can do.”
Bowers-Johnson says she’s focused on the business side of things, like handling the transition of all her inventory, décor and furniture, which a company has purchased from her, income that will help her in her refunds.
“I’m sure, at some point, it’s going to settle in, when the shop that I named after my grandparents is empty,” she says. “I thought I would hand it down, whether it to be my granddaughters or [store manager] Linda or even her granddaughters … none of us thought Louis Marie Bridal would ever end.
“But it’s not a place of happiness anymore. And it’s over, and it’s time to move on.”