Tillie Abrams was the woman behind William Ashley

Tillie Abrams, who founded William Ashley in 1947, died Tuesday. She was 98.

The name William Ashley has been well-known in Toronto for more than 60 years, associated with the finest bone china, crystal and sterling silver, a shop that sold to society’s elite and to generations of brides from its location on tony Bloor St.

What is much less well-known is that there was no William Ashley, just Tillie Abrams, a woman with pluck and business smarts who founded the legendary store in 1947.

“It was unheard of back then for a woman to run a business,” said Jackie Chiesa, general manager of William Ashley. “The name gave the feeling that a man was behind the business.”

Abrams died Tuesday. She was 98.

Always elegantly dressed, her long blonde hair in an upsweep, Abrams continued to sell occasionally from the store floor until the late 1980s, and then remained involved, contributing her input on products, displays, new opportunities, said Chiesa. Her son, Alan Stark, is still active in the company, and her grandson, Dean Stark, is CEO.

Abrams was born in Poland and came to Canada as an infant. Retail was in her blood. Her father owned a paint and wallpaper business on Spadina Ave., where she worked after school starting at the age of 13.

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