Sandy Pena’s love for downtown Weslaco runs deep and reaches back to her childhood when she and her cousins used to play summertime hide-and-seek in the adjoining buildings owned by her father and aunt.
“It was our playground,’’ Pena said. “It’s where we grew up.’’
Those days of frolic are long behind her, and Pena today owns and runs the downtown store her father, Lionel Oliveira, started almost 60 years ago and still bears his name.
Lionel’s Western Wear has endured – with a boutique added – but it has not been easy as it continues to buck trend after trend that has claimed so many family-owned small businesses.
“We survived peso devaluations, and then we survived the malls, and now there’s the internet, and we’re competing with that,’’ said Arcy Rodriguez, a 45-year employee of Lionel’s Western Wear & Boutique, in looking back at the years and its many challenges.
Business survival for Pena has meant transforming Lionel’s from the rugged western wear boots-and-hats offerings of her father’s heyday to one that includes an eclectic boutique of women’s clothing, shoes and glittery purses. The classic boots, hats, blue jeans and belts with big buckles are still for sale at the store, but Lionel’s is now a store whose business caters to women for 50 percent of its sales.
Lionel Oliveira for years worked to serve the construction workers, farm and ranch hands, and the store’s legacy continues to do the same today, but a key to the store’s longevity, Pena said, are the 30 style shows she does a year throughout the Rio Grande Valley that feature her women’s line of clothing.
“They’re big for me,’’ Pena said of the style shows, and how they promote her store.
Pena said her father foresaw the need to diversify the store’s selections when he retired in 1984, advising her to use an adjoining space he owned and add a woman’s clothing wing to Lionel’s. Pena did just that and her boutique today is fully stocked with a variety of clothing and shoes she handpicks to offer versatility that can be mixed and matched for different kinds of events.
The foundation for it all, she says, is customer service.
A review on Facebook described shopping at Lionel’s as being “an amazing experience (in) having so much attention and help in selecting special outfits.’’
That sort of customer service was evident during a recent afternoon when Pena worked closely with a young female customer as she tried on different outfits and the store’s owner gave her insights and advice.
“What they can’t do better than us is the quality of customer service we provide,’’ Pena said in referring to the world of competition outside of her store windows. Rodriguez’s description of Lionel’s customer service is “we get to know them and they get to know us.’’
Getting to know Lionel’s is finding out about the family story that created the business decades ago. It’s a classic American immigrant story. Lionel came to the United States from northern Mexico in the early 1900s. The father of his wife, Isabelle, was an Ellis Island immigrant from northern Spain. Lionel and Isabelle were high school sweethearts and married in 1942 before he went off to serve his adopted country in World War II.
Upon his return, Oliveria and his new bride set off on their new life “with no real plan,’’ Pena said. Her father would manage a Harlingen clothing store owned by his brother-in-law before setting off on his own in Weslaco in 1959.
The rest is downtown Weslaco history.
“I’m here for the love of my family’s business and my love of downtown Weslaco,’’ she said. “I have a lot of pride in everything we do here.’’