Mavis May behind the counter at her Caneland store.
Mavis May behind the counter at her Caneland store. Tara Cassidy

After 60 years in business, she doesn't want to quit

"A WOMAN... buying her own clothes with a cheque... what would your husband think?"

That was the confused response Mackay business woman Mavis May received from a shop attendant over 60 years ago.

She had flown to Sydney to purchase the first lot of stock for her new business, Mavis May Boutique, after opening a shop on Holland St, West Mackay.

"Things were certainly different back then, women didn't buy things or make the money," she said.

"He just looked at me so strangely and I told him, 'well my husband doesn't know what I want, I do!'.

"Then he asked me where I was from. I told him Mackay and he said 'well where on earth is that?'.

"I could have sworn he thought there were still kangaroos jumping down the main streets where we were from."

That was where it all began for Mavis - a little shop on Holland St, making wedding dresses for many of the brides of Mackay.

She hardly needed to advertise. With not many dressmakers in Mackay back in those days, she said she simply popped a sign in her window and the customers started rolling in.

"It's quite lovely, I still get ladies coming in most days saying Mavis you made my dress 40 years ago and now my daughter and I shop in your store," she said.

"People remember and I still recall all their faces."

If you ask Mavis how long she's been in business, she'll tell you 60 years, but her tales of dressmaking and business antics date back much further.

She was a driven young woman with a goal in mind of owning her own business, and that she achieved quickly.

Mavis was born and grew up in Sarina, where her parents owned a cane farm.

She rode a horse to her primary school, which was nothing more than a tin shed, with six or seven students, a lifetime of difference from today.

Eventually her family sold their property and moved to Mackay where she attended high school and began her dressmaking apprenticeship.

"I studied that for four years, did a year at Mark Foy's in Sydney (a department store from 1885-1980) and not long later I came back and started Mavis May," she said.

"I would have been about 30 then, the rest was history.

"Back in those days it was more me making clothes, wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses and so forth, and then when I moved into the city heart it turned more into a clothing shop."

Mavis recalls being located in the city arcade that linked Wood and Victoria streets.

"Oh it was so great, there was everything in there, a little restaurant, a jeweller, I had two shops and lots of staff," she said. "Business was just booming, I couldn't believe it.

"We were there about five or six years and then they decided to close the arcade, and ever since then business was never quite the same."


Also active in the community, Mavis May, with Bernadette Sievers prepares for a Quota club high tea party
Also active in the community, Mavis May, with Bernadette Sievers prepares for a Quota club high tea party Lucy Martin

From there Mavis moved her store to Victoria St, where she stayed for many years before eventually relocating once more due to flooding.

"It happened about three times, just in heavy rain, and this year when I heard the cyclone was coming I knew it was just time to get out," she said.

"Before that I had really no intention of moving to Caneland, but here I am now and it's been good.

"I've been here six months so far and I love it because I get to see all the children walking by."

In addition to running her successful business over the years, Mavis has also been an active volunteer for Mackay RSL and Quota and been a foster mother to four children.

Now 89 years of age, she has cut back, but is still working hard six days a week at her Caneland store.

She said she loves it and wouldn't have it any other way, although knows she will likely have to "give in" and retire at some point.

"My family ask a bit when I'm going to finish up, and I will eventually, but it will be hard," she said.

"I love my shop, I love being a part of the community and giving back in some way and I love being around people.

"I'd never even thought of retiring until everyone started bugging me about it, but it will probably have to happen within the year."

When she does retire, Mavis said she will look forward to spending time with her family, her children Cheryl and Gary, and her grandchildren.

She's also kept company by her new poodle puppy, Patty, since losing her husband James May two years ago to cancer.

"I'm not quite sure what else I'll do when I retire, I've never really stopped to think about it," she said.

"It will be different, hopefully keep busy, maybe some gardening and volunteering."


Mavis May with member for Whitsunday Jason Costigan.
Mavis May with member for Whitsunday Jason Costigan. Contributed

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