The Kari Shoppe is one of those small-town gems, a charming slice of Americana where, inside its walls, time seems to have stood still -- even as the rest of the world flies past the window.
A plain storefront, the Kari Shoppe is a fashion throwback, a ladies' dress shop lodged inside a nearly 100-year-old building along Robertson Boulevard.
The owner is Audrey Horner, who named the store after her only child, Kari, and added the "-pe" to the end of "shop" because otherwise, "it didn't balance to my eye."
Next month, the Kari Shoppe turns 40 and Horner is hosting a weeklong birthday celebration, including a storewide sale, starting May 1.
Horner, who is 74 years old, has managed to maintain the same attention to detail and a methodical customer service that has attracted a remarkably loyal following of mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces and neighbors.
Before she puts new clothes out on display, Horner steams each piece in the back room using her own steam machine.
"I can't even tell what the clothes look like if they're all wrinkled," she said. "It's not appealing at all."
Horner does all alterations, including shortening pant legs and sleeves and taking in fabric on the side, for free. She will drop the altered clothes off at the person's house or will ship them -- again, free of charge.
And she has kept a fresh pot of coffee brewing for her customers since day one as well.
"If it's within my ability to do a nice job, I'll do it," she said. "I think it was Henry Ford who said like a thousand years ago, 'you find a need and you fill it.'"
"So I can do the alterations and not charge for it; I can gift wrap at no charge; I can run it by the house after work; I can have the coffee pot ready," Horner continued.
"People are hungry for a little kindness. They want to tell you about their day. It's like building your own market and finding your niche and hanging in there because this kind of shop is fast disappearing."
Before she opened the Kari Shoppe, Horner worked for 15 years at PG&E in Merced, working her way up in the customer service department, from a representative to a supervisory clerk.
"In those days, women could go only so far and I was at that point," she said. "So, I thought if I'm going to work this hard, I'm going to do it for myself."
Horner, using her own money, bought the store in 1967 from a woman who had been running her own ladies dress shop in the same location.
Horner removed all the previous inventory and restocked the place with some of the same brands that are sold there today, like Koret, Alfred Dunner, Graff and Lilly. The same Koret brand representative has been selling to her for 35 years.
But now, "ladies who used to come in and say, 'Hi Audrey, I need something. I'm going to Europe,' now come in and say, 'Audrey, I need something for the doctor's office,'" she said. "It just happens that these same people have been with me for so long that their lives change."
As Horner knows, mass retail clothing stores are popping up with increasing frequency these days. She credits her customers for keeping her in business.
Horner does no advertising, yet still manages to attract shoppers from as far away as Fresno and Stockton, women like Mary Sims who will drive the extra mile to visit with Horner and shop at Kari's.
"Truthfully, she's the only store I buy clothes from," said Sims, 74, of El Nido. "I don't go to Penney's or Sears or anything, because to me, there's no sense in going anywhere else. I find what I like at Kari's."
Sims said she has been shopping at the Kari Shoppe for at least 10 years, but stops in for a weekly chat and cup of hot coffee.
"I tell Audrey that I'm going to become a pest and she says 'oh no, you'll never be a pest,'" she said.
Another longtime customer is Ruby Walker, who, despite moving to Texas in 1993, still makes it a point to "pick something up" from the Kari Shoppe during her annual Christmas pilgrimage to visit family in her former hometown.
"I could call her right now and ask her to send me something to wear to something special and she would and it would be to my liking when it got here," said the 82-year-old Walker from her home in Llano, Texas.
"Most people aren't like that," she continued. "They don't know what you want and what suits you. But Audrey, she has a good sense of what would look good on you and what you would like."
She has such a crowd of devotees, in fact, that each of the more than two dozen plants growing in her show room -- hanging in pots and scattered among the mannequins -- were given to her by a customer.
Pointing to a dark green split-leaf in a large pot, Horner said, "That plant was from a dear customer. When she gave it to me, it was just a little stub of a plant -- all wilted. She said, 'if anyone can make it grow, you can.' So I put it in a bigger pot and he grew and grew and grew. He likes it here."
The once scrawny shrub now stands 8 feet tall, lording over a rack of blouses.
The plants' growth marks the time for Horner, who says she plans to keep the Kari Shoppe open for at least another 12 years.
"I run a little country store in a little country town and that's just the bottom line," Horner said. "My goal is to make it to 50 years. That would be nice. Then we'd really have a whale of a birthday."