Mother of 10 found second career as merchant


August 27, 1998|By Geri Hastings | Geri Hastings,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AT FIRST GLANCE, IT would appear that the story of Charlotte Nicodemus, while fascinating, is shared by many of her generation.

She was born in 1920, went to college, married soon after and stayed home to raise her family.

She gave birth to 10 children in 20 years: two sons -- the youngest and oldest -- and eight daughters, including one set of twins.

But then you hear about the Parasol, a consignment shop in quaint, little Lisbon that Charlotte opened after the children started growing up. Many say Charlotte has come to mean so much to this community that people come to the shop on Whitefoot Alley behind the Citgo station on Route 144 as much to see her as for her merchandise.

The building that houses the Parasol is not much to look at. But inside is a myriad of delicately decorated paper and parchment parasols, huge hand-hewn rough wooden ceiling beams and an assortment of tastefully displayed items.

The Parasol is a shop that has an ambience that reflects its surroundings in Lisbon, where beautifully preserved older homes and storefronts evoke the charm of a bygone era. A cash register nearing its 100th birthday sits on a counter near the door.

Only a few minutes past the 10 a.m. opening on a recent Saturday, Charlotte was busy tending to customers interested in a solid, wooden executive desk.

An attractive, tall, slender woman with short, well-coiffured gray hair and sparkling green eyes, Charlotte radiates a warmth that makes visitors feel welcome in her store. It is easy to see what is so special about the Parasol's proprietor.

Charlotte Kuhns was born in Baltimore the year Warren G. Harding was elected president. She graduated from St. Mary's Junior College in St. Mary's -- now St. Mary's College -- and married Howard Nicodemus in 1942. In 1944, the day after she came home from the hospital with their second child, Howard -- Howdy to his friends -- left for World War II.

In 1950, the growing Nicodemus family moved to Woodbine, where Charlotte and Howard still live. Howdy purchased a car dealership where the Citgo station now stands and acquired a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise.

He eventually sold the business but kept a large outbuilding in back, renting part of it to an auto body shop. Charlotte raised the children and tended to home and garden. While she says she loved every minute, by the time her youngest child was 12 she was ready for a change.

"It's in my nature to be busy," she says. "And with children leaving the nest one by one, I wasn't as busy as I had been. Unfortunately, I had no experience at anything except motherhood and PTA functions. And even with the PTA I was always only vice president, not president, because I was always pregnant."

With well-developed people skills and a love of antiques -- but without the capital to start a business -- Charlotte decided to open a consignment shop. She approached her husband about renting the unoccupied half of his body shop building.

"If I clean it up, can I have it?" she asked. The answer was yes. The Parasol opened in 1975 just as secondhand was becoming fashionable.

Charlotte accepts women's and children's clothing, furniture and bric-a-brac for consignment. Clothing is a big seller, but Charlotte's real passion is the furniture.

Her furniture room is decorated with her not-for-sale collection of wooden antique ironing boards. Charlotte, who traded her station wagon for a van, no longer drives around to auctions and sales, so she relies on her good customers to bring their treasures to her.

"I wanted some other interest in my life," said Charlotte, "and I certainly have found it here. My greatest asset is my customers."

Her customers might not agree about her greatest asset.

Most of the parasols that hang from Charlotte's ceiling were brought in unsolicited by friends she acquired through her business. Customers says visits with her can be therapeutic. They talk, she listens, and friendships begin. On days when she is not in her shop, people ask, "Where is Charlotte? I have something to tell her."

Donna Honeywell of Mount Airy echoed the feelings of many when she said, "I really enjoy coming to the Parasol. It is so relaxed, and nobody bothers you. Charlotte is just a delightful person. People come here to shop and to spread a little news. She provides a great service to people who come and talk to her. She is a very special lady."

The Parasol is not just Charlotte's business, it is her love. She nurtures it just as she has nurtured her 10 children, 20 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Daughter Ann Titherington of Dayton has nothing but admiration for her mother's independence and initiative. She sees her mom as a feminist role model, a bundle of energy and a gracious lady.

"To think that at the age of 78 she would still be moving furniture and having fun doing it should be an inspiration to us all," says Ann.

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