After 31 years, Diane is putting a bow on The Shirt Box and heading down the street to well-suited new shop.
The year was 1963 and E. J. Korvette was looking for a lady’s man. The discount department store (not named for Eight Jewish Korean War Veterans) needed someone to head up women’s wear at their branch in Roseville, Michigan.
That man was Seymour Birnbaum. Fifty-six years later I learned to tie a bowtie.
A few things happened in between.
Seymour clocked out for the last time at the Westchester Korvette’s and, with his wife, Jeanne, and daughter Diane, swapped their apartment in Flushing for one in Oak Park.
Twenty-five years later, Korvette’s remained only as a $74.55 Retail Clerks Union pension for Seymour and a milk crate of heavily played vinyl for Diane, collecting dust in a house two miles north of her parents’ place.
A mother of two young children, with an English degree from Wayne State University, Diane was not looking for a career in retail. Until retail came looking for her.
The Shirt Box, nestled on 10 Mile between Southfield and Evergreen, had “a gal” on the floor there and that gal had broken her leg (not on the floor there).
An ad in the Jewish News that ran the month Diane started working at the Shirt Box told readers to look no further “whether you’re looking for a Tony Lambert Sweater or Damon Dress shirt.” It didn’t take long for Diane to realize that men needed plenty of help to live up to the expectation that they “dress like a mensch … in today’s fashion-conscious world” because piano key necktie.
“Men will listen. And I’m 4’11” so they can see me and how well their shirt and tie pair in the mirror even if I’m standing in between.”
Diane came to know her product because she ordered her own — nine months ahead, never too many of any one shirt that you’d see it on two pulpits, and don’t settle for dull just because it’s big and tall.
And she came to know her customers. Big, tall Bad Boys kept coming back after they retired and could count on her to help them transition from basketball uniforms to pleats and then graduate to something contemporary “where you could still sit down safely.” Bob Seger and Alexander Zonjic might just hear themselves, along with other customer favorites on the ever-eclectic Diane Starr Radio Pandora station.
When fashion changes created choppy waters, Diane was a North(west) star generations of gentlemen could sail toward to navigate Regis Philbin monochromatics or the prodigious pocket squares popularized by Steve Harvey.
And if it was a family member looking for a gift — say, for Bobby Ferguson to be the Best Dressed Defendant — the Shirt Box would have his most recent measurements saved.
If there was something not quite right about the shirt, there was Diane. Stubborn crease that ought not make the evening news? She’d steam it while Huel waited. Neck too tight for Tommy? She had a bag of thread that would make Joseph blush and would move the button until it fit the Motor City Cobra like an unshed skin. All by the granddaughter of Brooklyn boxing promotor Johnny Attell, no less.
Then there was Keith, the humble office supply salesman — the man that kept the Shirt Box’s pencils sharp and pens in ink.
The little ditty about Keith and Diane is indeed about two American kids doing the best they can. Both comfortably beyond the hold-on-to-16-as-long-as-you-can plan, they were a match made in menswear. The way they found each other (with help from Rod Brown; and the Beach Boys … live in concert!) and the way they fit together (like a navy blazer with anything) was so seamless it rendered Rabbi Dannel Schwartz virtually (but not actually) speechless when he officiated their wedding in 2008.
“Perfect is imperfect, imperfect is perfect” — that’s how Diane described the finishing touch on my expertly tied bowtie and, true to form, she proved to be the imperfectly perfect Shirt Box steward for more than 30 years there.
After decades weathering fashion and financial tempests — from recession to rayon, e-commerce to Z. Cavaricci, Northwestern Highway construction to trucker hats — the Shirt Box has gone the way of Korvette’s.
Diane’s grandchildren are now the age her kids were when she went to work. At 98, her dad is quite particular about how she makes his oatmeal when she visits each morning after her 40 minutes on the treadmill. (Keith is on his own for breakfast.)
Fortunately for us, Diane is taking her talents down Orchard Lake Road and will no doubt be suited to serve as the first-ever saleswoman at Baron’s.
Click through the gallery below to view Diane’s impact in the community: