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Real Estate / Houses

Dancing River Oaks Store Owner Defies Death

An Incredible Story of Surgery, Stress and Salsa

BY // 09.14.15
photography Max Burkhalter

Pamela Parker labored 29 years to build her solid reputation in the Houston retail and design world. But one of her most vivid memories is not a fine French fauteuil spied at the Paris flea or the rush that comes with making a big sale, but the blunt prognosis her doctor delivered in 2006.

“He told me I was going to die soon,” says Parker, proprietor of the venerable River Oaks-area home design emporium Krispen. Her doctor didn’t need to list the reasons for her imminent demise; Parker was living them every day: Her diabetes was out of control, she had sky-high blood pressure, and her kidneys were shot. She’d already had a quarter of one breast removed in a cancer scare. Despite multiple surgeries, her knees had given way 15 years earlier, forcing her to use a wheelchair often. She couldn’t do her own grocery shopping and could no longer even stand on her own.

“I was in terrible pain,” she says. Her body was failing at a rapid rate, and the cause was abundantly clear: “I weighed 340 pounds,” Parker says, her voice cracking at the painful memory. “I can’t believe I ever weighed that much.” After a pause to collect herself, she says, “I decided to take drastic action and have the most radical surgery possible.”

Pam Parker at her bedroom desk.
Dancing into a new life: Pamela Parker sits at her bedroom desk.

Gastric bypass, for someone of her compromised health, was risky. But for Parker, the benefits were immediate. “Before I left the hospital, my blood pressure became normal as well as my sugar levels, and I no longer needed medication for either,” she says. The pounds melted away. In one year, she had shed half her body weight, 170 pounds. But two years later, unable to lose additional weight and with excess flesh around her stomach, she consulted another surgeon about a tummy tuck. The procedure was again enormously risky, and the recovery time would be long, he told her. Essentially, an incision would be made 360 degrees around her middle and 18 pounds of skin removed.

“He told me that before I could have the surgery, I’d need to exercise hard to build up stamina,” Parker says. Trouble was, she hated exercise; she didn’t even like walking. “He said, ‘Why not start salsa dancing?’ That was something I thought I could do.”

She hit the dance floor hard, taking lessons four days a week from two different instructors. Five years and a handful of successful reconstructive surgeries later (including one to remove excess skin from her face), Parker’s life has been transformed by dance. Once hobbled by obesity and sickness, she’s traded a size-24 tent dress for a size-8 custom-made salsa gown from Gordy Designs, and a wheelchair for custom rhinestone-encrusted high heels. “I’m 68, but I act 48,” she says.

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In March of this year, she entered her first professional ballroom competition, the Royal Ball in Los Angeles, with her full-time dancing partner and instructor, 27-year-old Stefan Golubovic. “He said, ‘This is your first competition, so don’t expect much,’” she recalls. Performing in the International Latin style she prefers, Parker snagged first-place ribbons in all nine events she’d entered in the Bronze over-60 age group. “I was floating on air,” she says. This past summer, she and Golubovic took nine more first-place ribbons at the international Millennium Dancesport Championships in Tampa. Private coaching sessions from British International Latin champion Shirley Ballas and professional dancer Louis Van Amstel of Dancing with the Stars fame are prepping her to advance to the Silver category at a competition in October.

The road to Parker’s ruined health was paved with grueling 14-hour work days, mall fast food and a sedentary lifestyle. But, as with most of us, that’s not how things started out. In her early 20s and fresh out of UT Austin, the Houston native worked as a tax accountant for interior designers and architects. “I learned so much about their business just by looking at their records,” she says. After her father died in 1984, she ditched the calculator, moved to Paris and took cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu with the intent of opening her own catering business in Houston.

Blue ribbons and metals from Parker’s dance competitions.
Blue ribbons and metals from Parker’s dance competitions.

“On Sundays, our only day off from school, I went to the flea markets and shopped and shopped,” says Parker, who shipped the antique pieces she bought to Houston, filling a storage unit. Back home in 1985, she scouted for a space to open a catering business, but the right one never materialized. Instead, she saw an empty space on Westheimer that had once held an antiques store. “The space had always caught my eye. I wrote the landlord a check for the first month’s rent right on the spot and put all of my stuff from storage in it,” she says. Krispen, which opened in 1986, was an immediate success. “I sold $5,000 the first month and $10,000 the next. Then I started traveling to buy more.”

Impressed by her sales, the Galleria offered her a small space to open a second location inside the mall, next to David Webb. The offer was irresistible. “Rent was only 10 percent of what I sold,” she says. She stunned mall management by selling $30,000 the first month. By the end of the first year, they asked her to close her Westheimer store and the Galleria boutique, and move Krispen into a mega 20,000-square-foot anchor space vacated by Frost Bros. She remained in the Galleria for five years, but the period took a serious toll on her body. “I had to maintain mall hours, which meant I was open seven days a week. I was there from 8 am and I left at 10 at night. The result was I was eating nothing but mall junk food and not getting exercise.”

In 1993, she purchased her charming 9,000-square-foot store on Westheimer and moved Krispen. But the damage had already been done, and her health was on a downward spiral. Eventually she was no longer physically able to travel to Europe on buying trips — something she had done perhaps 60 times in 20 years. Thus, Parker’s store has focused on finely crafted, newer pieces since 9/11 when customers’ tastes — and the size of their wallets — changed, she says. Gone are the days when a customer would walk in and buy a $50,000 antique center console or drop $250,000 in an instant for a handful of 19th-century furniture. Riding the wave of change, Parker has intentionally evolved Krispen into a destination for smaller decorative items and handcrafted classic furniture inspired by fine antiques. The store is chockablock with styled vignettes of exquisitely carved French and Italian- style consoles, chairs, dining tables, gilt and bone inlay mirrors, contemporary and Asian art, decorative pillows and embroidered linens. Price tags are moderate — the costliest piece she has on the floor is $12,000, but you’ll find many furnishings and objects for a few hundred dollars, she assures.

Parker’s opera glasses and collection of antique ivory and mother-of-pearl boxes.
Objects of affection: Pamela Parker’s opera glasses and collection of antique ivory and mother-of-pearl boxes.

About a year ago, someone made a lucrative offer to buy the Westheimer building Parker owns, and she decided to close the store and retire. When word got around to her customers, “Some of them came in and cried,” she says. “The reaction was overwhelming.” The deal ultimately fell through, and although Parker has had other offers to buy the building, she admits, “To be honest, I don’t know what I’d do if I sold. I’ve worked all my life. I love seeing my customers every day; I’d miss them. They’ve become my friends.”

She’s now medication-free and in excellent health. “My doctor calls me a swan, because of how I’ve transformed,” she says. Customers don’t recognize her. “I have people who come into the store who say, ‘I used to buy a lot of stuff from your mother,” she says, laughing. “I look into the mirror now, and I can’t believe it’s me.”

Mall food is a thing of the distant past. Today she cooks at home, drawing on her French culinary training for the rustic, simple meals she prepares in her beautifully designed kitchen at her townhouse in West University. While cooking is a rekindled passion, dancing has become a five- day-a-week obsession. “Dancing has given me more energy than most my age. I can wear high heels and keep up with any 20-year-old,” she says. “It’s been a struggle, and there wasn’t anyone there to guide me through it. But there is hope. I’m living proof.”

Parker dances almost every day, as if her life depends on it. And it does.

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