by Len Lear
If you go on Yelp.com, the most popular website for consumers to evaluate businesses, and punch in The Happy Butterfly in Chestnut Hill, which has been selling clothes for young children for 31 years, the first comment that pops up is this one from Emily A. of Glenside (yelp.com does not print last names):
“This place is like walking back in time…in a great way. The owners, Ginny and Lew, have to be pushing 90, but they are still in there every day. Their store houses different handmade items such as smoked dresses, afghans and oven mitts. 90% of the items are for infant/toddlers. It is a great place to buy a baby gift for a newborn. They also have a line of hand-painted ornaments that have different Philly views such as Valley Green and the Liberty Bell. Again, great gifts. But the best thing about this place is the owners themselves. They are so sweet and friendly. Stop in and say hi and support their small, local boutique. And tell them I sent you!”
When you talk to people who know Ginny Ashenfelter, 84, and Lew, 83, who have been married for 60 years (they met on a Friday, and Lew proposed marriage the following day), all you hear is how beloved they are. For example, Chris and Kristen Marsceill, who narrowly escaped death during the Hurricane Katrina disaster over Labor Day, 2005, but who now live in Chestnut Hill, told us in a previous interview, “We would like to thank Ginny and Lew (whose display window Kristen had recently redesigned). They have had their own problems, but they have been so good to us. They are two of the nicest people we’ve ever met.”
The late Pat Stokes, who owned a vitamin store on the Hill for many years and who wrote an occasional column about new businesses in the area, referred to Ginny as “a lady with a huge heart of gold.” Unfortunately, last New Year’s Eve, after closing their store, Ginny was preparing dinner in their Flourtown home with a champagne bottle chilling for a New Year’s toast when Ginny fell in the kitchen and fractured her hip. “I had not even had any champagne yet,” recalls Ginny, who wound up undergoing hip replacement surgery, which was followed by yet another hip surgery.
The pain and immobilization were so bad that Ginny was away from the store for slightly more than 10 months. Lew steered the ship in her absence. Last week, however, after an agonizing period of rehabilitation, Ginny returned to work while still disabled. “It’s great to be back and see all the wonderful people around here,” said Ginny last Friday. “We have had some slow days this week and some good days. Today was a great day. One man came in and bought a whole lot of gifts.”
Beginning in 1983 in a small room behind the present location in the Community Center Building at 8419 Germantown Ave., the business took off right away. People asked for handmade baby clothes, and Ginny somehow found crafters to produce them. She worked with many of those early artisans for decades, knowing their life stories and loving them like family. In the early years Lew was working for a lumber brokerage firm, but he found time to help organize the Butterfly and has continued to play a major role in its operation, putting in time behind the counter several days a week.
The Happy Butterfly has always been known for its huge, varied selection of gifts for infants, toddlers and young children, plus a few goodies for grownups. The leading lights in this collection have been the famous hard-to-find hand-smocked dresses for little girls. Pat Stokes once wrote, “Sweet and adorable are the only suitable adjectives for those. Next, handmade little sweaters that make grandmas positively drool, they’re so cute, just right to tuck into a suitcase when visiting a young family in Florida or California.
“Then to the Raggedys: Ann, Andy and gray-haired Raggedy Aunt Elsie (lovable-huggable). Aunt Elsie is based on a real Aunt Elsie who had three husbands, now all deceased. There is a similar story behind almost every lovingly made article in the shop like the handmade crib quilts in pretty pastel block designs … Mustn’t forget the outstanding wooden dollhouses, doll beds, alphabet blocks and other wooden toys everyone searches for.”
Lew grew up in Gwynedd Valley “when it was mostly farmlands and woods.” He attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where Ginny was from. They met when she was a student at the Richmond Professional Institute of William and Mary College, majoring in clothes design. (“I’ve always loved crafts and millinery.”)
Ginny and Lew have a son, Winfield, 54, who went to Springfield High School, Penn Charter and the University of Alabama. Having worked for a Fortune 500 company and then been an actor, teacher and now longshoreman, he lives in Los Angeles. They also have a daughter, Sharon, 53, who went to Springside as well as Springfield High School and the University of Virginia. She now lives in eastern Virginia with her husband, a Marine Corps retiree, and son, Michael, 16, a talented lacrosse and football player.
For more information, call 215-248-3733.
Ed. note: I would like to thank Sean Brickley, a friend of the Ashenfelters, who brought Ginny’s plight to our attention.