While the string of buildings lining Main Street transformed from historic warehouses into glitter-boxes of designer fashions, exotic fragrances, and original art before gradually morphing into a row of jewelry and Tee-shirt shops, a little business on the fringe of the tourist district just kept hanging on, offering handmade “practicals” with island flare.
The unassuming old wooden building perched on a corner of Norre Gade has become a bit of a legend, thanks to the artisans who work inside and, most especially, to the woman whose name adorns the sign that hangs outside, announcing “Zora of St. Thomas.”
After 60 years, the core of the business remains its signature custom-made sandals, but it’s also known for canvas bags, both sturdy and whimsical, uniquely designed jewelry, hand-crafted belts, and other leather accessories. It also carried everything from Middle Eastern rugs and furniture items and clothing from around the world.
Now in her 90s, founder, proprietor, and driving force Zora Galvin still works mornings to 1 p.m. in the shop.
That probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew her when she was growing up in Missouri. At a time when it was still customary for girls to march down the aisle to join a man, not to pick up a diploma, she got her music degree at Eastman School of Music and took a job teaching music in Hawaii, where she also played French horn with the symphony.
It was in Hawaii that she first got interested in sandal-making.
“I bought a pair for $12.95. I took it apart and saw how it was made,” she said.
She met her first husband, Patrick Miller, a radio operator in the Merchant Marine, a gifted photographer, and an intrepid traveler, on a beach in Hawaii.
She moved to New York, worked at Macy’s, and then married Miller, who had his eye on the Caribbean.
“My husband said, ‘You can choose between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas,” Galvin said.
The couple arrived in St. Thomas in 1960, and she took a job in a shoe repair shop on Back Street.
“There was no demand for French horn players down here,” she deadpanned.
But in the tropics, “people need sandals,” so she decided to get serious about making them. Her efforts were not immediately successful. She placed a few with a local dress shop, but they didn’t sell, and she had to take them back.
“They were pretty awful,” she says now. But she kept improving her skills, and in 1962 she opened her own business. She’s had several locations in Charlotte Amalie over the years; Zora’s has been in its current location since 1980.
That first shop was just a 9-foot by 15-foot room, she said, and it was pretty crowded. “I had myself and two workers, and I was pregnant.”
Both of her children are “really outstanding artists,” she said. Timisa Miller does glass and beadwork and has been a mainstay at Zora’s. Shansi Miller is world-famous for her portraits and other artwork, especially oil painting, and has worked on and off in the family business.
Galvin says they inherited their talent from their father, who had a great sense of color and design and was a fantastic photographer, whereas “I can’t draw.”
She does have a myriad of other skills – such as bookkeeping and marketing – and a work ethic she has passed along.
“You have to know everything if you have a small business,” she said.
One of those things is the need to keep up with trends and, she said, not to specialize too much.
“We do a little bit of everything,” she said, including shoe repair, and offer a variety of items. Some of the more exotic items for sale are things Galvin saw on her many trips abroad to countries as far-flung as Vietnam and India.
Her love of music has been a constant in her life. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she was in the St. Thomas Community Band and was the conductor for several years.
“We had rehearsals twice a week all year long,” she recalled.
At 90, she may not have the breath for the French horn, but daughter Shansi said, “She still plays the violin. I’m very proud of her.”
“I struggle with the violin,” is how Galvin put it, adding that the relatively simple recorder is more her current instrument of choice. She plays “just to keep my mind active. It really is a brain-stimulant.”
She feels that way about the business too.
“I need the job,” she said. “It makes me get up in the morning. It rattles my brain.”