After a bout with cancer and enduring a divorce, Coralie Greenhow turned to what makes her happy in order to earn a living: sewing.

She took whatever money she had and opened Coralie’s in Yakima, a small alterations shop specializing in blouses, dresses, shirts, slacks and jackets.

“I took every cent I got from my divorce and figured if my business didn’t take off in four or five months, then I’d have to close and figure out something else to do,” the 72-year-old said. “And that was a risk because I was over 50.”

More than two decades have passed, and she’s still stitching.

Housed in a small building with large windows overlooking West Chestnut Avenue, her shop is filled with garments either needing alterations or ready for pickup.

One recent afternoon, several dresses were hanging from a rack by the counter, ready for customers. At the center of the shop stands a circular rack similar to those found in clothing stores crowded with clothes needing work. A few smaller racks are filled with more clothing, and yards of folded fabric are stacked under one counter. Several sewing machines specializing in certain stitches fill the front of the shop behind the counter.

Business has held steady over the years.

“Life is good,” Greenhow said from behind a sewing machine. “I am one who thanks the good Lord every day and never forgets that I could have been hungry one day.”

But there is a little more personality to her shop than just sewing. Old dolls, depicting the turn of the century to more modern ones, fill shelves nearly around the shop. There’s a large plastic Barbie RV that was part of a doll set from the late 1970s. At the rear of the shop is another shelf filled with old cassette tapes and vinyl records, including one of songs by Marilyn Monroe.

“A lot of what’s in here are collectibles,” she said. “People call wanting to know if they can bring in their daughters to look at the dolls.”

There is no reason for the collectibles — it’s just stuff she has either acquired or people have brought in over the years. “I hold on to what I can,” she said.

Below one long shelf of dolls hang countless ornaments. “Ninety percent of those were given to me by customers,” she said.

From a humble beginning she acquired a strong clientele.

She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the mid 1980s, and doctors were not sure if treatment would be successful. After undergoing various cancer treatments over an 11-year period, she said she hasn’t had any recent problems.

Facing a terminal illness made time more valuable, so Greenhow quit her job as a fleet manager for the state of Alaska’s transportation department and turned to sewing, something that girls of her time routinely learned at home.

“When something like that happens, everything changes,” she said. “When you have a terminal illness, a life-changing thing, it changes your perception.”

A short time later, her then-husband was hired as an engineer for the Wapato Irrigation Project and they moved to Toppenish, where she worked sewing out of their garage. She often did work for Kraff’s Clothing store in downtown Toppenish.

About five years later, she and her husband divorced, and that’s when she decided to move to Yakima and began relying solely on her business.

She began by renting space from the now-defunct Corday’s women’s clothing store at the corner of Yakima Avenue and Front Street. The store needed to have a dress fitted for former KAPP TV news anchor Dana Cowley, and called Coralie. That led her to work for the store on consignment, and she rented a space on the third floor of the building.

A few years later, she moved to a spot inside the old opera house on Front Street. Nearly two years later, she moved again to a spot on Track 29, where she stayed for 15 years. But poor upkeep of the building led her to move nearly three years ago to her current location on Chestnut Avenue.

Over the years, she’s served a broad clientele, from service men and police officers to women and teenage girls. She alters dresses for weddings, work uniforms for almost every occupation and sometimes even sews drapes and bedspreads.

Certificates of appreciation from the Marine Corps, Air Force Recruiting Service, the Yakima Training Center and the American Legion dot her counter. In a nearby photo album are pictures with thank-you notes attached from several local beauty pageant winners, including 2007 Miss America Teen Sadie Porter and 1997 Mrs. Washington Globe Carol Milliron.

“They’ve all been my customers, which is pretty exciting,” Coralie said as she flipped through the album.

Business is never boring, she said.

“It’s fun, it’s interesting and everything changes,” she said. “The styles change, people change. I watch kids grow up, and I think that’s pretty neat.”

A picture hangs on a wall near the counter of a woman appearing to surf on an ironing board. Below the woman is a slogan that reads, “Live your life and forget your age.”

Coralie’s work is her life. During the week, she sews with her three other employees and helps customers. On Wednesdays, the shop is closed to the public so they can catch up on work. And on Sundays, she mops and cleans the place.

“I will be working until the day they throw the first shovel of dirt over me,” she said with a laugh. “My customers tell me I better not think of retiring or dying.”

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com.