Martha Doster folds a brown velvety scarf for a tall, stern-looking man. She places it carefully in a small gift box, humming along to the Sting song that's on the store's speakers. It's a busy day in the little shop that's been a staple in the Nob Hill area for more than three decades. Everything is on sale for 40 percent off or more. As the last days wear on, the discounts will go deeper.
It's a whole lot more work to shut down Martha's Body Bueno than it was to open the store with hardly any goods 32 years ago, Doster laughs from under her big, brown cowboy hat. "We opened up with pretty much nothing," she marvels. "In those days it was easy to do. I don't think you can do that anymore. Too many things have changed."
Doster's always laughing. She speaks quickly, keeping an eye on the activities of the people in the shop. An artist comes to pick up his work. "Sorry it didn't sell," she tells him as he exits into the sunlight. Friends of Doster's flit in and out, some of whom have driven miles to help her close up for good. The phone rings. A customer wanders into the back of the store to look at some store furniture. Doster compliments a woman on her scarf. "Whoa! That's beautiful!" She's exuberant.
Everyone has questions, and Doster answers them all quickly but with a warmth that shows her love for people. "I just like talking with people," she says. "The biggest thing I'm going to miss is people. I'm good at it. I'm easy with it. I get along with pretty much everybody." She isn't going to miss dealing with the money. She's never been good at the books, she says, "and if I was, I would have gotten rich."
The first time I went for a loan, I didn't get it. And I know it was because I'm a woman with a small business.
Martha's will be open only until Leap Day, Feb. 29. Deborah Reese, owner of Seventh Goddess, will be turning Martha's at 3901 Central into a second Goddess location. Reese will continue to carry Doster's body products and will also host the annual art bra show that began two years ago. Doster will sell her products online at marthasbodybueno.com. They are, she says, her bread and butter.
Doster was 25 when she opened her store in 1975 near the university in a building that was torn down to become the Walgreens on Girard. She moved to Albuquerque in August and had a store open in November. "I didn't know a single thing," she says. "I was a bartender and a waitress before I owned a retail store." Doster thought to herself, "Maybe I'll do this for a couple years, and then we'll see what happens," she says. "Who knew?"
She didn't have much. The store was tiny with dark walls, sandwiched between several other stores. At first she carried one line of prepackaged, pre-scented body care products from California, because it was the only all-natural skin care line available. "We would put mirrors on the backs of the shelves to make it look like there was more," she says.
In those days, what is now Yanni's was a pawn shop, and Scalo restaurant was a lamp store. "It was kind of bleak," Doster says. "And nobody thought of it as Nob Hill." Sometime in the mid-’80s, the federal government selected a handful of cities in which to work a revitalization program. The government would fund the program for three years, and participants had to find matching funds and net some customers and other businesses. Business owners, including Doster, developers and property owners banded together to make it happen. That, in Doster's mind, was the birth of Nob Hill's renaissance.
We opened up with pretty much nothing. In those days it was easy to do. I don't think you can do that anymore.
Doster's never taken a business class. "Over the years, I've learned the hard way," she says. But she learned. She doesn't need mirrors anymore. Even the picked-over ends of her stock are extensive. Lingerie, jewelry, creams, balms, soaps and bras done up as art—Doster's collection grew. She started going to trade shows to build her stock. "If I don't like it, I can't sell it," she says. "I can't have it in here. For me, it's just, Look at this cool new thing I just got."
A man with the sleeping boy in his arms is scoping out the shelves, thinking of purchasing them for an art gallery he runs in Belen. He stops next to a beauty that houses the last of Doster's jewelry stock. The shelf came with the first space she rented. "At my 25th anniversary, I was going to throw it out the back door. I was so sick of it," she says fondly. "Some friends of mine convinced me to cover it in copper and put rolling glass shelves in it. I still have it." Before this interview's over, the gallery owner will have written down a bid for that case and many others in the store.
"The first time I went for a loan, I didn't get it," she says. "And I know it was because I'm a woman with a small business." Being a woman in business was harder in the '70s, she says, and she realizes that in hindsight. "But it wasn't insurmountable. And I didn't know any better, so I just kept persevering."
Doster guest-lectured at business courses, and the No. 1 piece of advice she gave to students: "If you aren't totally enthusiastic, if you aren't absolutely passionate about it, don't do it." For the last few years, even before she moved out of her Central location a few blocks west from where she is now, Doster felt spent. She hoped the move would rejuvenate her, and she threw herself full-bore into remodeling the new space. It took a long time to realize that she needed to take her own advice. She was no longer fully immersed in her shop, and so she knew it was time to call it a day.
The focus of Doster's store has always been to remind women that they need to take care of themselves and their girlfriends. "I always wanted it to be about women remembering that we nurture everybody else, and it's OK to do that for ourselves, too." Doster admits that though she uses her products, she's never really nurtured herself. "It's pitiful, really," she says. "I spend all day telling women how to take care of themselves, the rituals, and then I don't do it myself." She laughs loudly. "But I will now. I'll have time."