At 80 years of age, Leake celebrates 50 years operating The Colony Shop & Bridal Loft
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – She’s 80 years old. Her husband is 82. She just celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary and she’s run a business in Fort Madison for half a century.
Those are longevity benchmarks a lot of people won’t see in their lifetime, but Madeline Leake not only has checked all those boxes, but a sit-down with her doesn’t lead one to believe she has any intention of stopping.
The Colony Shop & Bridal Loft, at 720 Avenue G, rolled over 50 years this month, Feb. 4 to be specific. The mark makes Madeline arguably the longest original business owner in the city, and one could easily assume one of the longest-serving owners in the vast reaches of retail in Iowa, the Midwest, and the country.
But Leake says she has no plans to stop.
“My hope is to do this until I die,” she said Tuesday, from her second story office surrounded by flowing gowns, delicately hung coats and jackets, shoes, catalogs, and her husband Chuck leaning against a wall you can be sure he built and painted.
After a few minutes he pulled up a chair – after fixing a vacuum and trying it out on the stairs – to join the reminiscence.
“We don’t do much slow around here,” Chuck said. “Did you know we got married after just three dates?”
“Four,” Madeline corrected. She knew the days 60 years later.
Over the next 60 years, the two raised a family and built a business. Madeline said she found a passion for clothing styles in high school during home economics.
Leake started as a private secretary for Henry Rippenkroeger at Sheaffer Pen, but didn’t like the gig so she left what everyone said was the “good job” to start selling clothing for Golden Rule in Keokuk in 1962, while also doing Minnesota Woolen party plan events on the road.
“I’ve never really been away from this for the past 60 years or so,” she said. “It’s just in ya.
“I think you have to love it. When I was in high school and taking home economics, I took this one class on clothing and I still have the little book I made at home. Little sheets of paper ribboned together and I drew pictures of clothes and all that. So it’s never been something I didn’t want to do.”
In 1971 Leake started looking for her own storefront in downtown Fort Madison, but most of the storefronts were full. After stopping in at Merle Norman’s to ask a few questions about the business, Leake, unbeknownst to her at the time, had actually found her storefront.
She got a call the next day from the store’s owner who said she was closing. The building was owned by John Amborn who also owned a building across the street where “The Next Door” is now. Amborn offered to rent the first floor to Leake for $200 a month.
“I was a wife and a mother with a family and I wanted to start my own business,” she said.
“There were many times when I would go to give him the rent and he would ask if I had enough to pay it. He said we could just skip a month if I needed it for something else. I paid him every month, but I’ll always remember that kindness. You really don’t see that type of thing anymore.”
When the Amborn family’s health deteriorated they offered to sell the building to Leake, but she had to make a decision quick or the building would go into probate. A nephew in the family called to let Leake know if she wanted the building she had to buy it that day.
“Before I went down to the bank I asked him how much it was and he said, “I don’t care how much it is. So I called over to the Wild Pear building which had just sold for a comparable price. But he didn’t care how long it took to pay for it and there was no interest and you don’t get that now days.”
Leake went down to Charlie Walker at Fort Madison Bank & Trust and, in less than an hour, the papers were ready to be signed. Leake said when she got back, the Amborns already had electricians putting in new air conditioners for the building because they didn’t want her to be saddled with the cost.
She said kindness was a big part of the transition as neighbors and friends took care of her garbage at night.
With the help of a Small Business Administration Loan and some funding from Fort Madison Bank and Trust, Leake was on her way.
At first the shop featured formal wear, but quickly moved to bridal wear after their son Robbie pointed out some flowing bridal gowns at a shop in Hannibal, Missouri. Her son said she should sell those at her store, and the new line was added.
After 50 years Leake has just a few key business concepts she sticks with, and one is being there for customers.
“I think the most important thing about running a business is you’ve got to be there. You can’t open and then expect everyone else to do what you do. You’ll sell harder than anybody,” she said.
“And the other is you have to have steady hours.”
Many retail outlets now have fluctuating hours and it’s difficult to tell when people are open. Leake said that makes it hard to sustain customer loyalty.
Because she had a family, she thought it would be good to start the business with a partner and she reached out to Kathy Porter who agreed to partner with her, but health reasons ended Porter’s role after about a year. From that point it was just Leake and a salesperson or two at different times. Now she has seven employees.
During that time, Leake has expanded to full wedding attire services including tuxedo rentals. She’s even experimented with creating flower arrangements after a business in town closed. There were thoughts of expanding in Carthage and Keokuk, but the Leakes never pulled the trigger.
“We were close to opening in Keokuk, but one of my distributors said I would end up being my own competition because people were willing to drive up here for what we have,” Leake said.
“He was right.”
What happens after she eventually ends her time with the business is something she hasn’t thought about.
“I have no idea. And I don’t really care.”
She still makes a list every night before she goes to bed of all the things she wants to get done the next day.
“I have it written down. You know me, I’m old fashioned.”
Madeline can be reached at 319-372-8271 or online at https://mlcolonyshop.wixsite.com/website. Or just stop in and say “Hi” in beautiful historic downtown Fort Madison.