Things are not going according to plan. Ten minutes into the interview at The Locker Room, a sporting goods store now in its 40th year on Lane Allen Road, owner Sylvia Milburn and her staff have managed to unearth significant details of the reporter's background while revealing nothing of their own. That's not how it's supposed to work.
"But this is what we do," says employee Liz Otto. "We talk to people about themselves."
Ah, one of the secrets to their success.
The interview comes after months of being put on hold: "We're just so busy, honey," or "Another time might be better," Milburn would say on the phone in a voice so soothing it could make Bobby Knight put his chair down and sit on it. Now, squeezed between the end of one sports season and the beginning of another, there's time to talk.
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Right off the bat: Walk into The Locker Room and one thing is immediately clear: The Milburn family is a welcoming bunch. Or maybe it's just that it's "party time," as Otto said.
"After such a surge, we have to let down and act a little crazy," says Milburn. She introduces her daughter Pam and grandson Bo, who work alongside her. Her son, Russell, is there, too. He's often around, especially when it's not party time but crunch time and the work goes late into the night. Otto calls herself an adopted daughter. Milburn lent Otto a helping hand and a job 15 years ago when she badly needed one; she's been there ever since.
A woman's place is in the room: Milburn and her husband, Russ, started the business in 1973. Their son was playing sports in high school, and they found "there was not a lot to choose from" in the way of sporting goods around town. So Milburn, who had been doing bookkeeping at home, and her husband, who was in food sales, seized the opportunity. They asked their three kids to each come up with several names, and Locker Room was on all three lists.
But the business had barely gotten into a groove when Russ died suddenly, at age 45. Sylvia Milburn had no choice but to keep going. Her family helped; daughter Pam came home from college and has worked there since.
As difficult as the experience was for everyone, it made Milburn something of a pioneer in the field. "I went to seminars and I'd be the only woman in the room," she says.
While the men in those rooms focused on hard goods, Milburn realized her expertise was in sewing and lettering. "I enjoy the art. We have fun with it." She toured uniform factories in Wisconsin and Tennessee. She visited a chenille company in Texas to learn how to work with the thick material that's used to spell out names on cheerleader sweaters and letter jackets.
"We kind of started in a man's world, but it's changed a lot," she says. More women are employed in sports-related fields, and many more girls are playing, thanks in large part to the Title IX law on gender equality in education that turned 40 this year.
But Milburn has witnessed other changes, too — the explosion of youth soccer across the nation, for example, and in her own neighborhood, the implosion of Turfland Mall across the road.
"We miss Turfland a lot," says Milburn, but not enough to move. "I like the independence here. I wouldn't want to be in a mall. ...One customer asked me on the phone, 'Why don't you have a location over in Hamburg?' Then he came in and he's been here every week since."
The stuff of Legends: The Locker Room's customers come in all sizes and levels of dedication, from the under-5 league players easily distracted by dogs and butterflies to UK standouts with pro careers on their minds.
When basketball coach John Calipari wanted a UK jersey personalized for President Barack Obama in 2009, the work was done at The Locker Room.
When Paul Laurence Dunbar High grad Lee Kiefer's family headed to the London Olympics last month to root for their favorite fencer, they packed "Team Kiefer USA" T-shirts made there.
And for those whose only cheering section is the one inside their head, there's plenty of exercise apparel.
Lexington Legends vice president Gary Durbin started going to The Locker Room as a boy in need of a baseball glove. He says it's the first stop for every new Legends player. "What they do is unbelievable. It's amazing the relationships they build."
The dies weren't cast aside: Milburn leads the way to where high school letter jackets are hanging on a rack, ready to go out after one last inspection. Nearby, seamstress Sharon Caldwell is sewing a team name on a shirt. "That's our high-speed machine," says Milburn.
Part of her on-the-job learning was sewing-machine maintenance. She can take them all apart and put them back together. That's pretty amazing, says the reporter. "It's just self-preservation," she says. Before you know it she's offering to repair a part on the reporter's old Singer: "Honey, just bring it in and I'll fix it."
The workroom walls are covered with letters and numbers. "In the early days we cut with dies. ... I still keep them around. That way if the computer or the cutting machine goes down, it doesn't kill me." Her grandson Bo demonstrates the current letter-making system while his dog, Hallye, left, warms the floor nearby. Hallye is the store mascot, says Milburn.
We pass by a bowl of thimbles, a keepsake of a seamstress who worked there 35 years. "I have to find something nice to put those in," she says.
If truth be told: By early August, party time is over. The Locker Room is getting swamped again with customers seeking all the paraphernalia growing athletes need. Often the young faces are accompanied by older, familiar ones: parents who came in long ago as children.
"It's shocking sometimes," says Milburn. "My gosh, you can't be that age ... ."
That kind of connection through generations is becoming as rare these days as a bowl game without a corporate sponsor. Well, maybe not that rare.
"People say we're so family oriented," says Milburn. "Do you think they're just lying to us?"
No, they're not lying, thinks the reporter, who's by now lost in a Norman Rockwell daydream, picturing an America where every business is like The Locker Room.
And that, for the record, was before the jar of Tootsie Roll Pops came out.