Byline: Brenda Lloyd

ATLANTA — Maxine and Donald Hilton have sent a lot of brides down the aisle.
But after a half-century of outfitting wedding parties, prom-goers and debutantes, the Hiltons are retiring and closing up shop.
“I’ve had lots of fun,” said Maxine Hilton, president and buyer, who is 77, “but we need to retire.” Donald, secretary and treasurer, who is 82, complained that they’ve been trying to retire for three years. But, as Maxine explained, their customers wouldn’t let them.
Rather than sell the business and take the risk of watching it fall below their high standards, the Hiltons decided to close on Oct. 4. They hired a company to handle the liquidation of their inventory, which was sold at 25 to 75 percent off regular prices.
The couple opened Maxine’s Ladies & Bridal Apparel in their hometown of Abingdon, Va., a charming old town nestled in the mountains, with good restaurants, hotels, stores and plenty of recreational activities like hiking and golf, in 1946. When Maxine was shopping for her own wedding dress, she discovered there was a need for a local bridal shop — Abingdon didn’t have one. She had to drive to Bristol, Tenn., about 30 miles away. And it was tough to get away, because she was so busy at her job as a dietitian for a local hospital.
“When I decided to leave the hospital,” she said, “I told Donald we would open a fine ladies’ shop and bridal salon.”
The Hiltons bought their store, which was built in the early 1900s, and the neighboring brick house, which dates to 1803, in 1952. They live in the house, and hope to rent the store to another business, preferably an antiques shop, Maxine Hilton said.
Maxine’s was housed in the 2,640-square-foot store on Court Street. It carried better bridal lines like Mori Lee and Bianca, as well as more moderately priced gowns for brides on a tighter budget. Wedding gowns were in the upstairs bridal salon, while mother-of-bride and other social occasion dresses were to the left of the shop entrance in the Rose Room.
Knits by Castleberry and less formal dresses were on the right side of the store. Formals, including prom dresses and long MOB dresses, were on a lower level. Maxine Hilton said she conducted her business by appointment. Last year, volume was $375,000.
She shopped in New York when she first started buying dresses, and dress companies thought she didn’t know what she was doing because of her background in nutrition. But, she said, she studied fashion and textiles along with nutrition while she was earning her degree in home economics at Harrisonburg State Teachers College (now called James Madison University) in Harrisonburg, Va.
“It was wonderful that I had taken those two years of fashion because, when I went to New York, people were trying to sell me dresses that I couldn’t sell,” Hilton said. Not one to be taken advantage of, she took one of the dresses and checked the hem, seams and stitches at the showroom and saw that all had been shorted — and told the dress company that. “That made it easier to go to New York because they learned that I knew what I was doing — that I knew color and fabrics.”
When Atlanta and Charlotte opened their own marts, she began shopping there, too.
Maxine’s was always a service-oriented store. Hilton said the most valuable commodity at the shop was advice. For example, if she saw that a dress didn’t look good on a customer, she wouldn’t sell it to her. On one occasion, she recalled, a woman came in with a picture of a model in a wedding dress that she wanted for her wedding. The store had the dress, but it did not look good on the customer. Hilton refused to sell the woman the dress, even though the woman preferred it, but sold her another that was more flattering. Hilton said the woman returned after the wedding and thanked her for her candor.
“I sell people a wedding gown that shows off their best features,” Hilton said. “My best ads go down the aisle. When the bride gets to the reception, people will ask, ‘Where did you get your wedding gown?’ “
Now that the business is closed, there is a void in Abingdon. “There’s not another shop like mine here,” said Maxine. “No one here carries the top lines.”
The Hiltons have been active in the community. Both were on the Abingdon town council, and Maxine Hilton hosted a talk radio show for 25 years. She also was on numerous boards of directors, still belongs to several civic groups and is chairwoman of Abingdon’s Tourism Committee. She directed weddings for several years until her business became too big for her to do both, but she plans to be a wedding consultant in her retirement.

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