Story By MeLinda Schnyder - Photography By Kacy Meinecke
Forty-four years after opening her specialty gifts store, Helen Galloway still works six days a week in the business.
“And would love to work seven if she could,” said daughter Buffy Dodson. “She gets bored on Sundays when we’re closed.”
On a typical day, you’ll find her greeting customers at The First Place, 2929 N. Rock Road, and meeting with jewelry salesmen visiting from New York, offering anyone who walks in the door a beverage and snacks. Galloway also continues to go to market eight to 10 times a year in Las Vegas, Dallas, New York or as far away as Switzerland. She also writes the copy for advertisements and has never hired an advertising agency.
The First Place is known for its personal customer service and low-pressure way of selling its jewelry, home decor and other gifts that range from $5 bags of jelly beans and high-end diamond bracelets. In addition to retail, the store offers interior decorating services and delivers expertly gift-wrapped corporate gifts for businesses across the city.
Galloway started the business in 1973, as a recently divorced mother of two young daughters. While married, she’d enjoyed buying a few gift items to sell in the high-end men’s clothing store that Galloway’s family had helped her then-husband start. After the divorce, she needed a job and Wichita, she thought, needed a specialty gift shop.
She opened the store with her sister Donna Jabara Baker in a 1,200-square-foot space at 6821 E. Kellogg in September 1973. Despite ignoring location advice from their brother Fran Jabara – a successful businessman who went on to found the Wichita State Center for Entrepreneurship – the women were already making a profit four months after opening. (They moved the business to its current location in 2002.)
That doesn’t mean building the business was easy. Galloway was one of the few female buyers in the 1970s. Although she never had to borrow money for the business and had a letter from her bank showing her solid financial status, salesmen didn’t want to work with her.
“When we started, it was a man’s world and they had no respect for women in business,” Galloway said. “Today, I still sign checks with my initials and not Helen because I had to do that back then when they didn’t think women should be in business.”
Galloway said she was fortunate to have the support of a large, close-knit, entrepreneurial family. She is the middle child of nine born to the Jabaras, who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon. Her father was a cattle farmer and owned a grocery store in Burden, southeast of Wichita. She graduated from Colorado Women’s College then returned to Wichita. Galloway met her second husband, Jay Galloway, when he came into The First Place looking for tennis attire. They married in 1976 and he died in 2012.
While Galloway has hired and mentored many women through the years at The First Place, including some who have gone on to start their own businesses, it’s her compassion that gets the most attention. The Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce named her its Uncommon Citizen in 2012 to recognize a lifetime of contributions to civic and cultural institutions in Wichita.
Galloway has a policy of saying yes to the hundreds of annual donation requests she receives from nonprofits for gift items used to raise money at charity auctions. In 2000, wanting to make an even bigger impact on the city than she could do alone, she formed Women of Wichita Charitable Foundation Inc. WOW is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that pools money to support special projects of Wichita nonprofits. It is open to any Wichita woman who contributes $1,000 a year and each member gets to vote on what projects are supported each year. There are more than 80 members and WOW has donated more than $1 million. Galloway pays for WOW’s expenses so all the money that individuals give goes directly to the charities.
Dodson, who has worked alongside her mother since she graduated from college, said her mother has passed along much more than just an eye for style and what Wichitans will buy.
“More importantly, she’s taught me compassion,” Dodson said. “Those things she does in the community are important to her and they are important to me. I think Women of Wichita is my mother’s greatest legacy. It leverages the power of numbers and the strength of a group to make a difference in people’s lives.”