Spencer Brooke was a small, trim woman, with a subtle but very definite sense of style. She stood out in a crowd, and was noticeably chic. She wore her blond hair in a bun at work and loose when she was at home. At thirty-seven, she ran a major enterprise. She was the owner and CEO of one of the most respected department stores in New York, Brooke and Son, more commonly known as Brooke’s. Although her more distant ancestors and her mother’s family had all been bankers for generations, her father’s family had been in the retail business. She was the fourth generation. It was in her blood. She loved the store and everything about it, and had ever since she was a child. She loved the smell of it, of muted perfume, the moment she walked through the door, and the elegance of the merchandise they carried, which made her proud whenever she saw it.
She was fourteen years old when her grandfather, Thornton Brooke, told her that one day she would run the store. It had never occurred to her before, but from then on, she had taken special pride in it. Her grandfather was eighty years old then. He taught her the things she would need to know one day, and would later quiz her on the information he’d shared with her. Brooke’s in its present form had been Thornton’s dream as a young man.
Thornton’s father, Jeremiah, had owned the largest, most successful department store in New York. He had established it with his own inherited fortune in 1920, with a partner. They called it Johnson and Brooke, and when Jeremiah bought out his partner a year later, he kept the name. They had the finest elite customers in the city. All of Jeremiah’s male relatives before him had been bankers, and his own father was skeptical when Jeremiah founded the store with the family money he had inherited. Jeremiah had an unfailing instinct for and attraction to retail. He knew just what both men and women wanted to buy, and he supplied it, bringing in the highest quality merchandise from Europe, and beautifully designed pieces from all the luxury brands in the States.
Thornton was nine years old when suddenly everything changed. He didn’t understand what had happened at first. The family moved from their mansion on Fifth Avenue to a small apartment in Gramercy Park. His grandfather’s bank closed its doors, and he heard his parents speak of the closing of the store in whispers. Jeremiah gave up his beloved store nine years after he’d opened it in the same year that his son Thornton was born. Thornton was twelve when he fully understood that they had lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, which was why Jeremiah had to lose the store and go to work at a men’s haberdashery. Thornton’s mother cried all the time, and his father wore a perennially grim expression from then on. The servants Thornton had grown up with had disappeared. The family had kept one maid. Meals with his parents were a silent hour of torture. Thornton couldn’t wait to escape to his room. Unlike others they knew who had lost even more than they had, the family had enough to live on, in a frugal existence. They just managed to get by, but they had a roof over their heads and weren’t starving. His father had looked older instantly, and suffered from ill health from then on, but went to work anyway. Even as an adult, Thornton could remember vividly how gray his father had become. Everything about him was gray, his hair, his face, the atmosphere in the house.
They had saved enough to send Thornton to college. He went to Princeton as all the men in his family had before him. He was twenty-one years old and a senior when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Two months later, he enlisted in the army. He spent the war in Europe, and survived the invasion of Normandy. His father, Jeremiah, died of tuberculosis at fifty-seven while Thornton was away at war. He returned to find his mother looking ancient and frail, although she was only fifty. The days of glory had never come again. In his spare time during the war, Thornton dreamed of opening a store, not on the grand scale of the one they’d had, but something smaller and just as exclusive. He had no idea how he would do it, but he knew he would. He had a more outgoing, cheerful, positive personality than his parents. He came home from the war older and wiser, with a fire in his belly, and a dream.
Thornton met Hannabel Phillips six months after he got back from Europe and was released by the army. Hannabel was a beautiful, lively girl from Virginia. Thornton was mad for her. His father had left him a small amount of money. It wasn’t a great deal, but it was a start. They married in 1945. She was working in an exclusive dress shop uptown in New York and had a style of her own. She had the same passion for fashion and high-quality merchandise that Thornton did. She was a year younger than Thorny, as his friends called him. She hadn’t been to college, but she was a bright girl. Neither of them was afraid to disagree with the other. Thornton loved a good argument, even with his wife, and she was a worthy opponent. He had strong opinions, and he never lost sight of his dreams.
Their son, Tucker, was born on their first anniversary. There had been complications during the birth, and the doctors told them afterwards that Hannabel wouldn’t be able to have other children, but she and Thornton were happy with their only son. Tucker was a strapping baby boy.
He didn’t have his parents’ fiery, outgoing nature, but he had an aptitude for math even as a child, and a passion for finance. He talked about being a banker or an accountant when he grew up. He learned to add and subtract before he learned to read. He had his ancestors’ bankers’ blood in his veins and none of the entrepreneurial “retail blood” of his grandfather Jeremiah or his father.
Tucker was a quiet child. He and his father had little in common, and Tucker barely saw him. Thorny was working two jobs during the week, and a third on the weekends. Hannabel stayed home to take care of their son, and she was clever at helping Thorny save his money. She made their clothes, upholstered their furniture, and made their curtains. Four years after Thorny had come home from the war, he had enough money to go to a bank, looking respectable and sufficiently financially sound to borrow the rest of what he needed to open a store. Twenty-one years after his father had had to close the most exclusive department store in the city, Thorny opened his own small, very elegant shop, far downtown from where his father’s much larger store had been. He was thirty years old and full of great ideas. He had an instinct for men’s clothing and Hannabel taught him what he needed to know about women’s apparel.
The store was an instant success and turned into a goldmine. Ten years later, in 1960, he bought a large old building near his small exclusive shop in the same poor neighborhood and turned the inside into a thing of beauty. It was like a secret treasure in a place where you’d least expect it. Brooke’s was an institution by then, famous for its luxurious, elegant clothes for men and women. The staff brought over the latest fashions from Europe and worked closely with high-end American designers, often influencing what they produced. Brooke’s had one-of-a-kind pieces. The store was a gem, although the outside of the building itself was ugly. It was on the fringes of a marginal neighborhood, so Thorny had bought the building cheap, but no one seemed to care about the location, as he had guessed they wouldn’t. Inside, the store was elegant and luxurious, and smelled of fine leather and expensive perfume. The décor was avant-garde and up-to-date. The most elegant society women in New York came from uptown to shop at Brooke’s. They knew they would always find something special there, something that no one else would be wearing, handmade knits from Italy, and evening gowns from Paris. They special-ordered dresses from Brooke’s own designers and bought alligator handbags in every color.
Thornton reveled in the sheer pleasure of what he did and what he sold. The merchandise in the store was known for its high quality and stylishness. He brought samples home to Hannabel sometimes to ask her advice, and she came into the store to give him her opinion on displays and merchandise. They were a team, in the most modern way, although Hannabel didn’t work at the store. She didn’t need to. She had an unfailing eye where fashion was concerned. Like Thornton, she knew their merchandise by heart, and she knew even better what women would want to wear next season or next year. With Hannabel’s instincts and his own, Thornton built Brooke and Son into a booming business. He fully expected his son, Tucker, to come into the business with him when he graduated from Princeton. Thorny had taken Tucker with him to Princeton as a child when he went to annual reunions. He had no trouble convincing Tucker to attend Princeton, but it was nearly impossible to get him interested in the store. Another offshoot of their gene pool ran through his veins. As he got older, the only thing that held Tucker’s attention was finance. He had no choice but to comply with his father’s demands. Thornton made it clear to his son at an early age that he expected him to work at the store. Tucker felt as though a life sentence in prison awaited him when he graduated. He begged to go to business school, just to postpone going to work at the store. Thornton granted him that wish, deciding that having a master’s degree in business might be useful for them.