Audiobook listeners can get a free copy of Clutch on Audible if you sign up for a 30 day trial!
Mimi Johnson was casually dressed in a brightly-colored blouse with enormous turquoise jewelry and equally-oversized glasses. Despite that largesse, the only thing truly bigger than her personality (and her bosom) was her handbag. Always perfectly matched to her clothing, shoes, and jewelry, she was like a walking Chicoâs advertisement, if you added forty years, forty pounds, and a Virginia Slims cigarette. From her Mary Poppins-like bag, she pulled out a box, impeccably-wrapped in glossy pink paper with a white grosgrain ribbon bow. A cigarette teetered between her two fingers while she produced a lung-hacking cough.
âOpen itâ¦ â¦sweetie. Open it,â she said to her seven-year-old great niece, Caroline, a beautiful and vibrant girl with long blonde hair and oversized blue eyes.
Alive with anticipation, sweet young Caroline eagerly took the box and smiled up at Mimi. She gingerly removed the ribbon, planning to save it for later. The glossy paper was of less interest and she ripped through it quickly. She opened the box and gently lifted out a hot pink purse, adorned with pale pink flowers and rhinestones. An enormous smile overcame her. Caroline nearly set her own hair on fire from Mimiâs cigarette as she bounded into her auntâs arms.
âOh, thank you, Aunt Mimi. Itâs lovely.â
And that was when Carolineâs love of handbags began. From big and loud ones that would make Mimi proud to unimposing wristlets, from bowler bags to satchels; it didnât matter if they were made of canvas or calf-skin leather, were distressed or embellished with metal studs. Hell, she didnât care if you called them pocketbooks or purses. She just loved them all â almost as much as she loved Mimi.
By the time she was a junior in high school and well on her way to being class valedictorian, it was the hundreds of bags Caroline owned that helped her conceptualize her ticket out of her suffocating small Georgian town. She would design handbags. And it was Mimi who was her steadfast cheerleader.
âCaroline, sweetieâ¦ â¦you find something you love and you just hold onto it.â It had never mattered if Caroline was asking Mimiâs advice about a friend, lover, or career. The advice was always the same: âFind something you love and hold onto it.â
Mimiâs words ever-present in her mind, Caroline headed to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and spent four years in Los Angeles learning everything there was to know to pursue her passion. Then, right out of college, she spent three years working in the design and marketing departments of two of the worldâs leading, high-end handbag designers.
She was schooled in beauty and how to accessorize the perfectly-coiffed women on the way to their Botox appointments. But Caroline was pulled by the nagging feeling that the very person who had inspired her career, Mimi, could never afford the bags she designed, even if Caroline used her generous employee discount on Mimiâs behalf. And God forbid Mimi would ever accept one as a gift, always preferring to give rather than receive. But Caroline believed there was no reason for anyone to be denied the ultimate in accessories. She saw an untapped market of designing beautiful and affordable bags, but she just wasnât sure she was start-up potential. Again, it was Mimi who nudged her to learn the business side of things and apply to MBA programs. When Caroline was accepted to Harvard Business School, Mimi, of course, encouraged her.
âYouâve got this, sweetie. ,â she said. âItâs in the bag.â
Caroline was sitting in Financial Reporting and Control on her first day of Harvard classes (and yes, the class turned out to be as boring as it sounded). Thatâs when she first eyed Mike, who was wearing a faded pair of Levi jeans, a washed-out vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt, and Converse sneakers. He oozed charisma. Turning her head away from him and back toward the front of the lecture hall, Caroline thought that if he were a handbag, he would be a grey leather tote â confident and dependable, but not trying too hard.
Mike surveyed the large lecture hall as he walked in, a Starbucks coffee cup in each hand. After descending the steps slowly, he took a seat next to Caroline and planted one of the white and green cups on her desk.
Flashing a wide, dimpled smile, which she mused he reserved for getting girls to drop their panties, he said, âHere. You look like youâre going to need this.â
âThanks,â she replied in a suspicious tone, turning her head sideways to look at him and raising an eyebrow.
âIâm Mike,â he said, again flashing a smile and reaching out for a handshake.
âIâm Caroline. Thanks for theâ¦â
âLatte,â she confirmed. âThanks. But just so you know, Iâm not gonna sleep with you,â she said in an apparent attempt to establish up front she wasnât taken in by his obvious charm.
âI know,â he replied matter-of-fact.
Before she could respond, Professor Beauregard, a stout man with excessive eyebrows, spoke up. âPlease take note of where you are seated. I will send around a seating chart for you to mark your spot. This will be your seat for the remainder of the semester.â
âLooks like weâll be seatmates,â Mike said, grinning at her.
âLooks like it.â
About three months into the first semester, Caroline learned that her fun-loving, easy-going, new best buddy Mike wasnât exactly who he appeared to be.
A blanket of white snow dusted the Harvard grounds and it was a particularly slow day in another mutual class, LEAD â Leadership and Organizational Behavior. Professor Moss, a frail man who weighed less than his years, was droning on and on about establishing productive relationships with subordinates or something to that effect. He initiated a discussion about what works better â the carrot or stick approach.
âMr. Barnsworth,â he called, referring to his seating chart and scanning the room until he found Mike in the fifth row. âWhat are your thoughts?â
âWell, it seems to me that good management is all about empathy and being able to enthuse and inspire your staff. You know, appreciating them and respecting them. Showing you care,â he said, placing his hand over his heart in a gesture of true compassion and concern. âAnd if they canât get that through their thick skulls, you fire âem,â he continued, drawing his finger across his throat.
Several students sitting around them started to chuckle while Caroline stifled a laugh. Mike looked around the room and nodded his head, soaking in the appreciation of his sense of humor.
âMr. Barnsworth,â said Professor Moss in a menacing tone, âI would have expected a better answer from you, considering your family history.â
Confused by the conversation unfolding before her, Caroline leaned over and whispered to Mike, âWhat is he talkinâ about?â Mike put up a hand to quiet her.
âLater,â he hissed.
Twenty minutes later, the two shared a bench outside Baker Library, the chill of winter causing Caroline to pull her scarf closer around her neck.
âWhat was that all about?â she asked, scrunching up her nose in confusion.
Reluctantly, Mike began to speak. âMy full name is Michael Frederick Barnsworth the Third. My family owns a large brokerage firm in New York,â he confessed, unsure of how Caroline would react.
Caroline listened as she took in just how old money his family really was. Mikeâs great, great, great, great â actually it was hard to keep track of how many âgreatsâ it went back â grandfather ran the first Bank of the United States, which Congress chartered in the early 1800s. His family had advised presidents, dined with royalty, and amassed a fortune that continued today through the Barnsworth Brokerage Firm.
âIâm the seventh person in my family to attend Harvard including my father, uncle, three cousins, and grandfather, who was a classmate of Professor Moss,â he continued.
Surprised by this unexpected news, she joked, âSo youâre just slumminâ with a simple Southern girl like me â and makinâ me pay for drinks, mind you â until you go join the family business and marry someone named Muffyâ¦â
âThatâs my familyâs plan,â Mike laughed. âThereâs even an office in the Woolworth Building owned by my family, sitting empty, until I finish business school,â he said reluctantly.
âButâ¦â she pressed, touching his hand gently, sensing the family plan may not actually be Mikeâs plan â though they had never discussed his plans before.
âI want to open a bar,â he said, matter of fact and looking her square in the eye.
Carolineâs head leaned back as she let out a raucous laugh. âYou want to own a bar?â she questioned, her shoulders shaking from laughter. âNow I get your goal to drink at every one of the six hundred bars in Boston before you graduate.â
âYup, itâs research,â he said emphatically.
âYeah. Every time my parents call, which isnât very often â they are usually off with their snobby society friends or at Met Balls â I tell them Iâm working hard and doing research.â
âGotta give you credit. Thatâs pretty clever,â she replied, nodding her head.
âAnd true. If Iâm going to open the best bar ever, I need to know what works and what doesnât.â
âOkay. I get why you donât want to be a wizard of Wall Street. But why a bar?â she asked, not understanding his desire for the life of a bar back.
âMy parents werenât around a lot growing up. My father spent more time in the office than my mother spent jetting between boutiques in Paris and ski chalets in Switzerland. And believe me, that was a lot,â he confessed. Caroline looked down in her lap, her heart sinking at the thought of the small boy with the winning smile being ignored by his family.
âI was pretty much raised by a series of au pairs. My favorite was Linnea who was nineteen when she came from Sweden to live with our family. She was obsessed with Tom Cruise movies and we would watch them all the time,â he explained, a wistful look on his face as he recalled fond memories.
âCocktail!â Caroline exclaimed.
âYup, I want to be the sole proprietor of a place where you can shake margaritas bare-chested,â Mike laughed. âItâs going to be called The Last Drop,â he stated, not looking for her approval.
âGreat name,â she admitted, nodding her head. âEspecially when your folks drop kick you out of the family.â
âI know. Iâm preparing to be disowned, which is why Iâm getting you used to buying the drinks,â he said, flashing her a smile.
âWell with any luck my business will allow me to continue payinâ for drinks.â
âThe purse thing?â
âYes. The purse thing,â she said, mocking him. âI aim to start a line called Clutch, because itâs one of my favorite handbag styles, and in honor of my aunt Mimi. She always says âFind somethinâ you love and just hold onto it.ââ
âSounds like a smart lady.â