Two weeks ago, Doris Lewis came out of retirement briefly to keep a promise she had made to talk with the Stabroek Business about 25 years of the family’s proprietorship of the Gift Centre, a store that has been the backbone of a broader reputation which the family has for entrepreneurship.
The occasion was an unfussy partial gathering of the Lewis clan and there was no hint that the occasion of the Gift Centre’s Silver Anniversary would extend into anything even remotely resembling an elaborate celebration. For Lewis it was simply a matter of quietly marking a milestone.
Not for the first time we have pondered the official position that the matriarch of the family business is in retirement. She may no longer show up at the office every day, but when she put in an appearance to talk with the Stabroek Business, other members of family, all of whom, these days, play some integral part in the running of the Gift Centre gathered in the small back office on the premises, sitting at her feet, to hear, probably for the umpteenth time her account of the story of the Gift Centre.
Over the past 25 years the preoccupation has been with managing the Gift Centre, which, Lewis said helped to pioneer the introduction of a culture of business concerned with a focus on providing a range of choices of gifts for all occasions.
The Gift Centre was her dream and it began on August 26, 1991 with a modest gathering of family and friends and with a simple blessing by Msgr Terrence Montrose. In the first instance, the small enterprise opened its doors for business adjacent to what was then the Lewis’ 10-year-old business, Regent Motor Spares on Regent Street.
Lewis said the venture got off to a good start. Customers found the quality of goods to be to their satisfaction, the service reliable and the location convenient. In the earliest days the Gift Centre became popular for watches, fragrances, cosmetics, handbags, toys, clothing, gift sets, glassware and ornaments. At that time the store was, for the most part, the only business in Georgetown that focused particularly on gifts.
One can easily become lost in Lewis’ excursion into the halcyon days of the Gift Centre. In 1994, in its first major expansion initiative, the Gift Centre secured the sole distributorship for York exercise equipment from Canada. It was a successful move crafted around the fitness craze that had begun to take off in Guyana. The company continues to sell York exercise equipment to this day.
The Gift Centre is one of the many business enterprises in downtown Georgetown whose trading has been punctuated by a devastating fire. Fire struck in February of 1996 destroying the interior of the ground floor. Lewis recalled that neighbours, family, friends and good Samaritans all chipped in, helping to retrieve, salvage and relocate stock. That, she said, was her “night of angels.”
Rebuilding was an arduous task accentuated by the fact that there was only limited insurance coverage. Acquisition of the current Hadfield Street location was the outcome of sacrifice and perseverance. It allowed for the creation of a modern store that offered more space and improved customer parking. In 1996, too, Lewis said, the family made the decision to offer a new service to customers, establishing Flights International Travel Agency. The challenges associated with the management of yet another enterprise meant that it was to be closed after only three years.
The Gift Centre, meanwhile, continued to set the standard in the industry, importing a wider range of products and offering warranties. These days, the product range includes designer fragrances, watches, pens, handbags, tools, electronic gadgets and exercise equipment as well as household appliances. The Gift Centre is popular with customers making wedding preparations and the store offers a Wedding Gift Registry service. Its product range includes brands like Seiko, Citizen, Casio, Fossil, Guess, Cross, Parker, Black & Decker, Oster, Leatherman, Samsonite, Airliner, Pro-Form and York, among others.
In 1999, the Gift Centre opened a further branch store on Alexander Street, Kitty. After a few years, however, it had to be closed. But there was to be more good business news for the Lewis family. John, one of the couple’s sons, having had the experience of serving as Marketing Manager at the Gift Centre and with the completion of his Management Degree at the University of Guyana, opened his own clothing store, John Lewis Styles in 2003 on Lamaha Street. The store is now located to significantly expanded premises on Waterloo Street.
Immune by now to taking bold business risks, the Gift Centre spread its wings again in December 2008, establishing the footwear store, Shoe Source on Regent Street. Lewis said she understands that risk is an inherent part of business and that is simply the way the Lewises have chosen to go.
The past five years have brought new challenges and more aggressive competition not least the rapid growth of online shopping and an uncertain economy. When you raise these issues with Doris Lewis she responds with a knowing smile as if to say that’s just the way that business goes. At the end of 25 years, you get the impression that the Lewises are in it for the long haul.