OHP Blog – Entrepreneur Chancy D’Elia
By Mary Jacobson
There have been many changes in retail on Greenwich Avenue over the years from mom-and-pop stores to large chain stores. In this blog, adapted from a 1975 Oral History Project interview, we look back to one of the most successful women’s clothing stores of the past, Chancy D’Elia, which existed on the Avenue from 1932 until 2005.
Chancy D’Elia was a “home-grown” girl, born in 1911 in Greenwich and raised here by her immigrant Italian parents. She attended the Havemeyer School and Greenwich High School, then located on Mason Street. After high school, Chancy enrolled in secretarial school – as many young women did at that time, then procured a job at the New England Carpet Cleaning Company where she worked for a few years.
Chancy had a dream and it started to form in her mind in her early twenties. “I was just about twenty-one and the thought came to me that I would like to start a little business, and then my uncle, A.V. Salvatore who was a furrier and had a tailoring shop on Greenwich Avenue, and also had a little store called Snappy Cleaners, and I asked him [if] one day I could put in a few ready-to-wear things. He was reluctant for a while and I kept teasing him. He said, ‘All right.’ So, I did.”
Chancy recalled how she and her sister went to New York with $270 and bought a few sweaters, skirts, and dresses. In those days, one could purchase a skirt for about $2.50 and a dress for about $3.75. Chancy put all the clothes in the front section of Snappy Cleaners. She observed, “In those days it only takes one person to get you started.” For her, that person was Hope Tyson who bought most of the clothes that D’Elia put on display at Snappy Cleaners. Chancy acquired other loyal customers and learned her way around the wholesale clothing market.
It was difficult in the 1930’s to get credit from wholesalers to purchase clothing. Eventually, a couple of the wholesalers agreed to do so. “They knew that we [Chancy and her sister] were perfectly innocent kids and they wanted to help us, and they started extending credit. Between the C.O.D.s and everything else, I was able to get established.”
After operating out of Snappy Cleaners for four years, Chancy had enough money and merchandise to move into her own store on Greenwich Avenue. Eight years later, and with ongoing success, Chancy then purchased the building at 244 Greenwich Avenue (now the location of Rag & Bone). Chancy relates, “I wrote to my husband (who was in the Army Transport Command during World War II) right away…We naturally negotiated, and we bought the building in January 1945.” The store, named Chancy D’Elia, remained in this location for the next 60 years.
Chancy prided herself on knowing her customers and their purchasing preferences. She described her buying style, “I’m a wild buyer. I always took a chance, never hesitated. If I think something is good, I’ll go right ahead and buy it. Then, we also have many salesmen come in here…sometimes standing out there, four and five deep, all day long.” On one occasion, she miscalculated the trend. “One year, when the skirts dropped way down—they went to your ankles—that time we had taken a beating. We couldn’t sell what we had in stock. I just took the whole mess of them and I had a nun, a cousin in Italy, and she was with the orphanage, and I packed them all and sent them to her and, of course, I received so many blessings from them.”
Throughout her interview, Chancy’s strong sense of loyalty to community, to her employees (known as “her girls”), and to her customers, shone through. In her words: “I call them (my customers) my friends because I just love them. They’ve known me for so long and there’s such an affection…I’m never too busy to say hello and speak to you, never. I find that’s so important really, and I always say to the girls, ‘When a person walks in that door, they have chosen this shop to shop in. They deserve every courtesy extended to them, every courtesy.’ That’s so important to me. I’d turn myself inside out for them.”
Chancy’s success as a businesswoman, despite her early challenges and obstacles, was due not only to her perseverance and savvy, but also to her philosophy of doing what you love and loving what you do.
The interview of Chancy D’Elia was conducted by Nancy Wolcott in 1975. Its transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.