Betty Higman came to Pine Bluff in the mid-1950s as a newly minted college graduate ready to educate young women about the virtues of home economics, with a particular emphasis on textiles and clothing. "I taught home economics in the Pine Bluff and then Watson Chapel school districts for a total of eight years," Higman said. "I had some fabric and clothing knowledge and I taught home economics in a smart way to the smart young women who took the course."
Betty Higman came to Pine Bluff in the mid-1950s as a newly minted college graduate ready to educate young women about the virtues of home economics, with a particular emphasis on textiles and clothing. “I taught home economics in the Pine Bluff and then Watson Chapel school districts for a total of eight years,” Higman said. “I had some fabric and clothing knowledge and I taught home economics in a smart way to the smart young women who took the course.”
Higman met and married Pine Bluff native John Briscoe Higman Jr. in 1956 and within a few years had become the co-owner of The Maru, a women’s clothing establishment that was located in downtown Pine Bluff on Main Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. “We were located on the site where The Alliance is located now. It was an elegant building,” Higman reminisced. Virginia Railsback and I bought Maru from Billy Bell in 1962, who also owned Billy Bell’s Mens Store. After four years I bought Virginia out and the store has been a family-owned business ever since.” “The story behind the store’s name is that the original owners were Mary Troupe and Ruth Roberts, who opened the store in the mid-1950s. They took the first two letters of their first names, combined them, and had the name,” Higman said. Higman recounted that while the downtown location was well-loved, a persistent issue with a lack of convenient parking led her to relocate the store to its present location in the Jefferson Square Shopping Center on Olive Street in 1981.
“We brought the fixtures from our downtown store to our new location,” Higman said. “The store space here in Jefferson Square is very deep for its width. Because of that we decided to make a store within a store by closing off the back part of the space and this became the bridal section, which provides privacy to bridal parties when customers are in the other part of the store.”
The bridal business
Higman is proud of her store’s success in providing wedding dresses and bridal services to the women of Southeast Arkansas since 1966.
“We opened a bridal and formal department in 1966 and in the years since we have been an important part of the bridal market in Southeast Arkansas for all of these years,” Higman said. “One of the main reasons that we have been so successful is that we have always been a full service bridal department. What that means is that we hold your hand from start to finish. We provide brides with alterations, dress pressing, the delivery of dresses to the church and we direct weddings.” Wedding direction, according to Higman, is all about finding out exactly what the bride wants and then making all of the subsequent decisions based upon that information.
“I can direct a wedding rehearsal in about 30 minutes. The key is sitting down with the bride and giving her options. You never ask for suggestions from others because every time you will have an aunt or other family member who thinks they know exactly how things should be,” Higman said. “The art of being a good listener is the best talent that a merchant can have,” Higman said. “As an example, I once had a bride come in who said that she had been to seven different bridal stores in Little Rock but wasn’t satisfied with what they were offering. I asked her if any of them had asked her what she wanted, and her answer was no. As a merchant you must know what it is that your customer is looking for. This is one of the things that I emphasize to my salespeople.” “During our peak years, I was probably doing as many as 300 weddings per year,” Higman said. “The first bride that I dressed went to Southside Baptist Church and was one of my students when I was teaching home economics at Pine Bluff High School. She still shops here to this day and she tells me that pretty much everything that she wears she bought here at the store.”
Higman said that she has prepared the weddings of multiple generations of brides.
“We have done the weddings of some daughters and even a few granddaughters of women who bought their wedding dresses from Maru in years past. I had the mother of a bridal customer tell me that I had helped her with her wedding 37 years earlier,” Higman said. A business that is more like a family
“One of our little secrets to success is that we are more like a family than a business,” Higman said. “The shortest-tenured employee I have has been here about 15 years and some of them have been here a lot longer than that. It is wonderful to work here because my people are concerned about me and I’m concerned about them. That is one of the advantages of owning a small business. It’s been a very satisfying business because you make a lot of friends along the way.”
Higman said that she has a total of seven employees. “Every day is a new challenge and I find that to be very interesting. I couldn’t imagine being in a job where you did the same thing every day. I prefer this,” Higman said. Fashion that is timeless “We are selling ready to wear moderate to better merchandise,” Higman said. “What we offer is quality at affordable prices. I would say that the focus of our business is on professional wear and special occasion dressing. We sell prom dresses and party clothes. We cater to bankers and lawyers and other professionals looking for business clothing. We buy traditional merchandise so we are not affected so much by fashion fads. I try to offer things that are very traditional and apply to a wide age range.” Preparing to say good-bye
“I’m calling this a retirement sale because that is what this is,” Higman said, commenting about the ongoing sale at the store. “I am 82 years old and have had some health issues in the past year and I told my children that I didn’t want them to have to worry about this store. We will be here until the first of the year.” Asked what she will miss the most when the store closes, her answer is simple and to the point.
“The people. My employees and customers,” Higman said. Employee and customer thoughts
Fifteen-year store employee Frances Stratton has memories of Maru from years past. “I got my little boy a white coat and short pants with knee socks from Maru. When I was a teenager I bought a Bobby Brooks outfit from Maru as well,” Stratton said. Ten-year store employee Hope Clement has enjoyed the camaraderie of the store staff.
“We have a good time here and that is why it is so much fun. Betty can do anything and it has to be perfect or it doesn’t leave the store,” Stratton said. David and Kay Shapiro, former proprietors of the now defunct Baim’s Department Store in Pine Bluff, also had memories to share.
“I think she’s a very good merchant. It is sad to see one of the last home-grown merchants leave Pine Bluff,” Kay Shapiro said. “There are so many brides and bridesmaids who won’t have the opportunity to know Betty after she has closed. It’s a happy and a sad story. There are so many memories but she is one of the last of the family-owned businesses in Pine Bluff.” David Shapiro remembers a spirited competitor.
“We had Baim’s Department Store for 88 years and she was a wonderful competitor,” Shapiro said.