It's impossible to guess how many thousands of times Betty Lott has posed the question, "May I help you with something?" In the topsy-turvy world of takeovers, mergers and bankruptcies, the most consistent and enduring presence through the past half-century of department store retail in Nashville has been this soft-spoken 86-year-old woman whose customer base turns over about every 10 years, and then returns again a generation later.
Lott has spent her entire professional life in retail, from her first job in 1958 at the original Castner-Knott on Church Street to her current position on the third level of Macy's in The Mall at Green Hills. She has outlasted her colleagues, managers, store presidents and three of the companies that are printed on her collection of nametags: Castner-Knott, Proffitt's, Hecht's and since 2006, Macy's. The great majority of her tenure has been in children's clothing.
As remarkable as her 54 years working the floor is that she has always — like Ginger Rogers — done it in high heels.
"My talent has always been in my feet!" Lott says with a twinkle in her eye. "I have always worn a dress or a suit to work, and heels. I think it looks more professional." The shoes add two to three inches to her petite 5-foot-4, 104-pound frame. "I buy them here on sale, and I take good care of them," she says, on duty at the Macy's Green Hills children's department. "Some of the ones I bought when I worked in the downtown store have come back in style. I try to stay classic."
As photos attest, Lott's classic look — raven hair, arched brows, porcelain skin, red lips and polished nails — has changed little over the decades. Neither has her sales style, which eschews pushiness for watchful attentiveness, a crackerjack memory and impeccable manners.
"I remember everybody and what they bought the last time they were in," Lott says. It is a gift that has earned her numerous "top seller" nods, the most recent just a few months ago. Framed certificates and photos of her with company bigwigs are scattered through the townhouse in Franklin she shares with her husband of almost 70 years, Walter "Buddy" Lott.
It was not the career she intended to have. As a girl, she thought her talented feet would take her all the way to Broadway. Betty Harris spent the first 10 years of her life in a two-story brick house that still stands on Hillsboro Road near Belmont Methodist Church. In fifth grade she moved to Florida, where she enjoyed a happy childhood and adolescence and an idyllic high school life of dances, formals and extracurriculars, capped off by being named Football Queen and riding in that year's Orange Bowl parade.
She was on top of the world until the day her mother picked her up from school and told her they were moving back to Tennessee.
"I had no idea," Lott remembers. "Back then, parents didn't discuss things with their children like they do today. I didn't even get to say goodbye to my friends. I thought my world was coming to an end. I cried all the way back to Tennessee."
In Nashville, Betty picked herself up, dusted herself off and made new friends attending dances with her male cousin, with whom she hatched a grand scheme. "We had it all planned out," she says. "As soon as I got out of high school, we were going to go to New York to be professional dancers." Before Betty could hop on a northbound train to the Great White Way to fulfill her dream, she was swept off her feet by Walter Lott, just after she graduated from West High School in 1942.
"I went with my cousin to a church dance," she recalls. "Buddy saw me dancing with my cousin and asked if he could have the next dance. I said yes and found out he was a wonderful dancer. After our first dance he didn't want me to dance with anyone else!"
Her cousin did indeed go to Manhattan, only without his dancing partner. Betty married Buddy in October 1942. It was World War II, and while Buddy served in the Army, she helped his father, a physician with offices next to the family home on Gallatin Road. She had their first daughter while Buddy was overseas, and their second not long after he returned home.
Like many women of her generation, she set her youthful dreams aside and focused on her home and husband, relinquishing the spotlight to daughters Ruthanna and Cynthia. "They were singers, they had beautiful voices," she says proudly. "Buddy played the piano and they sang, they were The Lott Sisters. We took them around to different places to perform."
Buddy had a good job with Eastern Airlines, but when they went on strike, Betty went to work. "It was right before Christmas, and we needed the income," she remembers. "I went downtown to Castner-Knott and bought a suit. The next day I went back to apply for a job wearing that suit. They hired me on the spot and sent me out to the floor to model the suit. That's what we did a lot back then. I would choose something stylish to wear and walk up to people to help them. They would compliment my dress or suit and ask where I got it. I would show them to the ladies department.
"I did whatever they asked me to do. When Buddy went back to work, I was going to quit but they wouldn't let me. I was glad, really. I love people, I enjoy helping them. It's been the perfect job for me."
Betty eventually settled for a spell at The Spot, the young teen department on the mezzanine of Castner-Knott's Church Street store, and loved making buying trips to New York. "I was Mrs. Lott in The Spot," she says with a laugh. One of her teenage customers was LaRawn Scaife Rhea, who met her in the early '60s. "When we first moved here from Palm Beach," says Rhea, "Mother had four children — 3, 5, 7 and 9 years old. She was thrilled to meet Betty Lott, who was so kind and helpful. She would give us things to do to occupy us while she helped Mother shop. Mrs. Lott has dressed four generations of our family. Mother and I still exchange Christmas cards with her."
Betty organized fashion shows for Easter, Christmas and back-to-school days, using her customer's children as models, She also taught a popular class called Party Manners — basic etiquette for young people, a subject that in Betty's opinion should never go out of style.
"I see many children who are nice children, but their parents don't teach them manners like they used to," Lott says. "I think young people want to do the right thing, they just don't always know how. I think when children know how to behave in social situations, it makes them feel more at ease and confident."
Over the years, beyond just the changes in style, she's seen a shift in her customers and the ways they behave and shop for clothes — from the number of dads who shop now to basic body types. These days, Lott says, "the young parents go along with what their children want. They let the children decide, even if it's not what they want their children to wear, or if it flatters them or is appropriate for their age. The children tell their mothers what they want, and the mothers go along. I act like I don't hear it, but I try to show them other things that I think are more flattering.
"Young girls go through that awkward stage when they're too small for some things and too big for others. I try to show them the things that will flatter them. Children — girls and boys — have gotten heavier over the years. It's harder for girls. They want to wear what the other girls wear, of course, and they just can't wear some things."
When downtown Nashville began its downward retail spiral in the mid-1980s, Castner-Knott hung on longer than its Church Street competitors Cain-Sloan and Harvey's. But when it shut its doors in 1996, Betty was sent to Green Hills. She can still be found there five days a week — on the third floor of Macy's, in heels.
"They followed me here, and now I have people that I dressed when they were children come in with their children," Betty Lott says. "If I'm not here, they leave me a note. People are surprised when I'm not here, they must think I live here. I don't even think about retiring. I would miss my customers too much. And I can't imagine what I would do all day."