By Bradley Robertson
The human spirit of work and creativity in East Alabama is growing beyond measure and expectation. We are a community that has become driven by small business and entrepreneurs of all makes, models and sizes. The once small space I remember from childhood is now vast, and we see new people planting roots and popping up meaningful businesses almost daily, even during COVID-19.
We are a brave force of community that began with small works by locals, decades ago, wanting to create something new.
At the young age of 31, Donna Young was pregnant, remodeling a house in Waverly, and was presented with a building in downtown Auburn. “It’s a really cool space, it’s big and two stories…” her friends told her. Donna had no real desire to start up something new. She had never been in retail and had no college business degree, yet she saw a space to offer something new.
“The whole store was to be an art experience, the music, the visuals…the space was big, and we didn’t want a name that was too definite,” she said. “We wanted something with possibility. Art is displayed behind glass and along with the big front window, we just picked it up, Behind the Glass, and it has evolved to whatever is seen behind there.”
Thirty-three years later, the iconic boutique, Behind the Glass, is thriving. Its lovely displays seen behind the large glass window continue to carry style and a visual appeal that speaks to all who pass by the endeavor of humble hard work and commitment to learn and grow in community.
Before graduating Auburn University as an Art and English major, Donna Young imagined she would move to a big city like New York to pursue life. On the contrary, Donna married just before finishing school and together the couple decided to stay local and create whatever kind of business they could in Auburn.
“We both had that entrepreneurial spirit,” Donna said. “When my husband said we need to open a business, I was like ‘are you kidding me, I’m six months pregnant and we’re finishing a house’. We also didn’t have much money. It was pretty scary because there wasn’t much in downtown Auburn. I got talked into it and we came up with the idea of a café to support the arts.”
Donna was in charge of the retail side of the business, sourcing books, art, gifts and home décor, and her husband at the time was in charge of the café.
“We really had no idea,” Donna said. “But Auburn took us really well. People were hungry for it. The merchandise we just adapted as we went along, and people loved the Café and loved the food. It was different than what anyone else had and [people] loved the atmosphere. Back then we didn’t have all these locally owned restaurants like we have now, so people appreciated it. It was like a meeting place, with different ages. That’s what I really missed when we closed the café, that community spirit.”
Although the initial idea of art didn’t make much money, it was the art that gave the store its character and made the space into an experience. “Art was always changing, so that kept it interesting. That’s always been the part that I liked the most, the visual and the atmosphere.”
Eventually, the retail side took much higher sales than the café, so the café was closed sometime in the late ‘90s to become the full retail space that Behind the Glass is today. The home décor and art became less and less, but the fashions and styles that hold the roots of the business today grew and grew.
“Honestly, when we started selling clothes, I didn’t even know what was in style,” Donna said. “I’d been living out in Waverly, gardening and wearing the same old clothes. It was a learning curve…I always wanted it to be eclectic and different. I had traveled to New York, so I knew I wanted it to be more like a big city store. I wanted it to have more of that cosmopolitan feel.”
Opening the store and taking big steps allowed Donna to grow in business and people skills, but she said the greatest growth was in herself.
“I remember in the beginning I didn’t even like to call people and I quickly got over that,” she said. “When you have a business there are like 20 million things that need to be done. You have to learn to prioritize, especially if you have a family and children. I learned early on to let go. Having young children helped me a lot, even though it was stressful to balance, I had to leave, I had to go home, I had to trust people to manage it when I wasn’t there…I didn’t know what I was doing starting out, but it’s all helped me to be more confident in myself.”
Donna’s growth in skill and work moved seamlessly alongside her curiosity in fashion and style. These strings together are what took Donna from a young, new entrepreneur into the woman of leadership and success she is today.
“With fashion, we’re still always trying to figure out, ‘Where is it going, what are people wearing, why are people picking this or that?’ I learned to keep up,” Donna said. “Fashion is something that never sits still. It was true then and it’s true now. Clothes are really important for women. Clothes are something that make you feel like you can be yourself, be who you are and do your job or your life with confidence.”
Donna said that fashion is more about wearing items that make someone feel good than having styles speak for themselves.
“You wear the clothes not the clothes wear you, and then you can accessorize it and add on different things to give it personality. I feel like getting dressed and picking out your clothes should be fun,” Donna said. “We like to encourage women to step out of their comfort zone and try new things to find their own style… that’s what the experience of shopping in person should be about. You don’t have to go with your safe choice, you can try something that you would never try on and you may be surprised!”
Donna has shaped Behind the Glass to offer a variety of attire that can be fit for the youngest lady looking for something trendy, or for wardrobe basics that are timeless and can work for years to come.
“It is a big store and there are a lot of choices so it can be overwhelming, and we don’t want to dictate a certain style. We try to have different kinds of things for different people,” she said. “We have fun little tops for a college girl but we’re also going to have things that work for all ages. A lot of women go shopping and feel bad about themselves, I want [women] to feel that there is something there for them…I hope for them to feel confident. Our style should make us look good, so we can speak for ourselves and be prepared for life.”
In building a wardrobe, Donna encourages younger women to make choices that are not just on-trend but to buy pieces that will last and are practical.
“Simple things like a good black dress that fits really well and you wear it for years. Or a nice blazer and a good pair of jeans,” she said. “You want things that are a little bit better quality, and things you can wear multiple ways. It’s worth spending a little more money for things that will last.”
Since opening Behind the Glass, Donna has not only seen fashion evolve and move but also the southern woman, and the way in which she has changed through time and style.
“[She] is less stereotypically southern. We are more sophisticated and more aware of fashion. It used to be southern women love color, and that’s still true, but we are not as floral and as bright as we used to be,” Donna said. “There’s more choice. Women are stepping into more roles of power. Political, governors, senators, congress people, I think that is where we need to be heading. More women are running their own businesses. It’s definitely happening.”
Donna Young wears a kind and humble smile at work and in our community. She has a quiet and generous spirit that speaks volumes to East Alabama in business and in giving back.
“I feel really grateful for the success the business has had,” Donna said, “that it has thrived for all these years. It’s a pleasure being downtown, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I have loved being part of this community and I’m really happy with what I’ve done. It’s afforded me a lot of privileges. I have gotten to travel for the business, and I have made my own little world here, and the community has supported me.”
Donna has been a strong advocate for The Boys and Girls Club for many years and shared that giving back to kids is one of the greatest contributions we can make to our area.
“The kids are so precious, and I just want them to have every opportunity that other kids have,” she said. “Our community cares a lot, but there is still a lot of competition between people’s money and people’s interest, and sometimes it gets forgotten. The money and time we invest in our kids just gives back multiple times. They want to give back to the community too. We just have to let them have the tools to do that.”
Donna’s greatest accomplishment is having two of her children alongside her today to help run Behind the Glass. Laughing, she told me, “you can’t do better than having your own kids work in your business. That’s been such a blessing.”
Behind the Glass is iconic to Auburn-Opelika, and the lady behind the small endeavor has grown our community in time and style.
“You have to know that you’re going to have things that don’t go well, but you can overcome them. You have to be ok with the unknown,” Donna said. “I believe it’s better to take a gamble and fail than to always play it safe… and when we get dressed and go out the door, know that we can handle whatever life throws at us.”