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Family is the secret to success of clothing business

Celebrating the 35th anniversary of running Pilgrim’s Progress Clothing in downtown Plymouth are (from left) matriarch Laura Brigida, daughter Joyce Whiting, longtime employee Renee Ferazzi, daughters Marie Whiting and Jayne Siever, and son Peter Brigida.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Celebrating the 35th anniversary of running Pilgrim’s Progress Clothing in downtown Plymouth are (from left) matriarch Laura Brigida, daughter Joyce Whiting, longtime employee Renee Ferazzi, daughters Marie Whiting and Jayne Siever, and son Peter Brigida.

PLYMOUTH — Laura and Peter Brigida were living the American dream in 1962, raising five children in their hometown of Plymouth when Peter, just 42 years old, suffered a heart attack and died.

At 38, Laura was left alone to care for her young family, ranging in age from 14 to a tender 20 months.  She didn’t buckle from the pressure. She took a job in the local post office to cover the bills and raised her children to be independent and resourceful. Most of all, she taught them the importance of family.

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“She was our beacon,” daughter Jayne said recently. “She showed great strength.”

Laura’s children pitched in as well, sewing their own clothes by junior high school and working jobs for pocket money. After high school, they put themselves through college.

The strong work ethic and devotion to family, learned from their mother in those early years, have sustained the Brigidas throughout their lives, from opening a family store together as young adults to maintaining a successful business through years of economic ups and downs and changes in lifestyles and conveniences that have pushed many downtown stores into suburban shopping malls or out of business altogether.

The Brigida family has stayed put, and is now celebrating the 35th anniversary of its store, Pilgrim’s Progress Clothing, in Plymouth’s downtown. And its success is as much about strength from family as it is business savvy.

Sisters Jayne Siever, Marie Whiting, and Joyce Whiting, along with their mother, Laura, run the women’s clothing department at the Court Street store, while brother Peter, named after his father, handles the men’s department. Carol Goodwin, the only sibling to move from the Plymouth area, also contributes, as the women’s shoe buyer. Each shares ownership in the business.

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Marie says it’s worked because “we realize we’re all in this together.”

Jayne agrees. “We all know we have each other’s best interest at heart, and we include each other in decisions.”

The story of the family store began in 1977, when Jayne, taking a summer job at Pilgrim’s Progress in Plymouth’s downtown, learned that its owner, Cheryl Souza, was selling the business. A management major in her senior year at Simmons College, Jayne saw the perfect opportunity for the family to go into business together. They agreed.

Laura remortgaged the family home to buy the business in 1977 — she would not say for how much — and to purchase the large brick building that houses the store a year later. Jayne was able to use the store launch as an internship to finish her college degree.

Marie and Joyce enthusiastically jumped on board, working in the store. A communications major, Marie was a natural fit as the family’s representative at local Chamber of Commerce meetings. Joyce, with a master’s degree in business administration, handled the books.

Meanwhile, Carol, who was raising a family in Sturbridge, pitched in as the store expanded its offerings, becoming the shoe buyer and selecting styles at Sole Commerce trade shows in New York City.  

“It was very intimidating,” said Jayne of the store’s early years. “My mother had mortgaged the house. For us, it seemed a huge commitment.”

Laura conceded it was a big undertaking for her and her family, “but I never doubted that my children would make it a success.”

Initially, the family offered the same clothing brands sold by the previous owner, just as they had kept the Pilgrim’s Progress name. Jayne, who did the buying, eventually worked her way to New York City, and the store’s offerings became more upscale and classic in design. “Our clothes are timeless but fashionable,” Jayne said. “They never go out of date.”

What the store sold was driven by public demand, Jayne added. “The advent of stretch fabrics has literally changed the way men and women dress,” she said. “Performance fabrics feel great and fit beautifully. Comfort, ease, and durability are all part of the equation, no matter what the fashion trend may be.”

The family shies from comparisons to larger, well-known retailers. “We don’t compare ourselves to anyone because it’s difficult to categorize what we do,” Jayne said. “We provide essentials with special pieces, and that is rather unique.”

Peter, the youngest Brigida, was a high school senior when the family purchased the business. When he finished his degree at Boston University, the store was enjoying enough success to expand. Peter opened a men’s department on the building’s second level in 1982. 

Over its 35 years, Pilgrim’s Progress has weathered dramatic changes in the downtown as large anchor stores, staples of Plymouth’s center, moved to malls or closed down.

Longtime real estate broker Mikki Chaffee recalled how different the center once was. Downtown used to be one-stop shopping,” Chaffee said. “There were clothes, shoes, office supplies, a hardware store, and an IGA grocery store.”

She lamented those businesses are long gone. “Now, I suppose I could go downtown for lunch.”

Local history buff James Baker sees a similarly bleak picture of today’s downtown. “It has restaurants and pawn shops, and that’s about it,” he said.

Baker nevertheless had a good word for Pilgrim’s Progress, saying: “It’s one of the surviving quality stores in downtown, one that has something different to offer.”

“The downtown has its ebb and flow, and we ride the waves,” Marie said. “We pay attention to inventory and keep costs down. We run a tight ship.”

The store also enjoys a healthy base of faithful customers, who return knowing they’ll always find what they’re looking for. “We know what’s in their closets, so we can match that to what we have here,” Marie said.

Peter said men generally don’t enjoy shopping. “We try to make customers comfortable,” he said. “We provide something updated, but still within our customer’s comfort level.”

Denis Hanks, executive director of the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, said Pilgrim’s Progress Clothing is a major contributor to downtown vitality.

“Over the years, they’ve always brought a positive attitude to the downtown, and they’ve brought a lot of business,” Hanks said. “They are our anchor.”

The five Brigida siblings all raised families while running the store. Today Laura has 20 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Over the years, family members have weathered personal ups and downs together. In 2003, Jayne lost her 18-year-old son.  

“My family saw me through that trauma and continues to see me through,” she said.

Laura, meanwhile, has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with her children and even at 89 continues to be a constant presence at the store.

“She’s very interested and very engaged,” Peter said. “She’s still cool.”

The Brigidas count Renee Ferazzi, who has worked with them at the store for all 35 years, one of the family. “She’s our surrogate sister; valued and well loved,” Jayne said.

For Joyce, the store has turned out to be the best career she could have imagined.

“It’s been a joy working with them,” she said. “I can’t imagine better colleagues.”

Christine Legere can be reached at christine-legere@yahoo.com.

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