A Stitch In Time

drinkwatersGary Drinkwater suits up. Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

We talked shop with Marlene Clauss and Gary Drinkwater—both longtime residents of the area, owners of beloved clothing stores and sparkling, one-of-a-kind figures who make up the fabric of this community.

great eastern trading co

Marlene Clauss peeks out from a changing room at the funky, fabulous Great Eastern Trading Company.

Marlene Clauss
Great Eastern Trading Company

When Marlene Clauss started working at Great Eastern Trading Company in 1974, it was a far different place than it is today. Back then, the vintage clothing shop on the outskirts of Central Square was a commune she operated collectively with four other people.

But Boston was a different place then, too. Clauss worked one day a week at Great Eastern, but she spent her nights as a go-go dancer in the Combat Zone, the infamous Boston red light district that Government Center would later displace. When she moved on from dancing, Clauss took a position as a waitress at a strip club.

“I used to buy floor-length gowns,” she recalls fondly. “I would wear them to the Combat Zone. I loved the counterpoint of dressing in these long gowns while the girls were on the stage.”

Clauss, who has owned Great Eastern since the ’80s, has always been infatuated with clothing. As a kid, she had recurring dreams that her closets were stuffed with clothes. More curator than compiler, she compares herself to a musician—and the store is her magnum opus.

“Like a musician composes a melody,” she explains, “the store is composed.” She pauses, taking in the rich tapestry of clothing that makes up the different areas of the store. “It’s a song composed of notes from different sources that are put together to create this beautiful harmony you see in here.”

Clauss’s childhood dreams have become a reality, as clothes take up nearly every inch of her shop, floor to ceiling. On a pair of enormous revolving racks housed in wooden closets that date to 1912, you’re liable to find everything from Hawaiian shirts to denim jackets to party dresses—clothing that spans every decade in the last century.

There are regular, sensible clothes here, too, but they still have a certain sense of flair. Great Eastern isn’t at the whim of donations—Clauss has a source she visits every month to handpick the clothing for her inventory.

The store has had its fair share of luminaries stop by over the years, including a certain recent presidential candidate. “Jill Stein used to hang out here,” Clauss laughs. (Because of course she did.) “I just saw an article the other day about how she’s a drummer. Well, guess where she used to play the conga drums?”

Other famous visitors have included Tim Robbins and Sean Penn, who were looking for leather jackets to wear in Mystic River, and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who liked the jeans selection so much he practically had Clauss on retainer.

But for celebs and non-celebs alike, the real appeal of Great Eastern Trading Company is the collection of clothing—from costume jewelry to cowboy boots—that tells stories that were in danger of being lost before Clauss rescued them.

“It’s a mix of the practical and surreal,” she says.


Gary Drinkwater

Gary Drinkwater got his start in 1978 at the world-famous Louis Boston, a menswear institution that recently closed after 85 years. He interviewed for a visual merchandising position, but when that had already been filled, he moved over to sales. It was there that he learned how to be not just a salesman but a consultant. He quickly realized it wasn’t necessarily clothing people wanted, but an experience.

“It’s a relationship business,” he says now, reflecting on those early days. “And relationships turn into long-lasting ones. Some of the first guys I waited on in 1978 are still shopping with me today.”

Drinkwater is impeccably dressed, with posture that would put a Catholic school nun to shame. He has a thoughtful, measured way of speaking, and he takes time to pause before he answers a question.

This is all to say: Gary Drinkwater is the man you trust to help make you look good.

When you walk out of Drinkwater’s—which opened outside of Porter Square in 2004—you’re leaving with more than just a fine piece of clothing. At his award-winning shop, Drinkwater doesn’t carry any big brand names—if you can find it in a department store, you won’t find it here. He doesn’t stock anything you can buy online, either. And if you’ve heard of the store at all, it was almost assuredly from a friend or well-dressed stranger. “We haven’t spent one dime on advertising since the day we opened,” Drinkwater says proudly.

The clientele of Drinkwater’s isn’t just well-to-do older gentlemen. The much-maligned millennial now makes up a significant portion of the customer base. “The millennial,” Drinkwater says, no hint of malice in the word, “has made a decision that he doesn’t want to look like the guys that preceded him. He wants to be a little smarter about the way he dresses. He’s very interested in fabric and construction and all the various elements that put a wardrobe together.”

Keeping an eye on these nearly imperceptible trends allows Drinkwater to remain on top. He owns the store with his wife, Teresa Borges. (They met as coworkers at Louis.) Together, they travel to trade shows and meet with suppliers to ensure their store remains the place to go when you need to make an impression or update your closet. Drinkwater wants his customers to have a memorable experience every time they’re in the shop, and he wants them to leave the store looking really, really good.

Because, more than the beautiful jackets, custom-made shirts and fine shoes, it’s the people Drinkwater loves. “I’m a people person. I just love it,” he says. “I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed. I’ve been able to meet the most incredible people in the world. That’s the fun part of my business.”

What keeps him coming back day in and day out—sometimes for 12 hours a day? He pauses for a moment in his thoughtful way, then quips, with a hearty laugh, “What else am I going to do?”

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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