Personal Shopper Gives Clients Gift of Freedom


Francine Penich hates to shop. Just hates it.

“You can’t ever find a place to park. I wander aimlessly without a list. Then I come out dazed and confused,” she said. And besides, the single mom and self-described workaholic from Thousand Oaks doesn’t have the time to shop.

Which is why Penich is one of Jami Cantor’s more grateful clients, thankful to the point of groveling. “I’ve already referred her [Cantor] to two people,” the real estate broker said.

Cantor is the personal shopper at The Oaks mall. Free of charge to the shopping allergic, Cantor is available to shop for them or with them. While her favorite thing is to remake an entire wardrobe, this time of year has her running through the mall’s halls with Christmas lists.


A mom herself, Cantor fits her never-ending sprees between getting her children off to school and picking them up. Hired in August, Cantor usually works two days a week. These days, however, The Oaks is practically a second home for the Agoura Hills resident.

On a recent afternoon, Cantor faced the crowds with Penich’s Christmas list in hand. She moved in and out of stores with a basketball player’s grace. She was looking for a desktop “antique hour glass.”

No time to stroll. Cantor made a calculated decision to visit The Museum Co. Swish!

She checked the list. Like another talented gift coordinator, she checked it again. Playing detective, she figured out that a “Buz and Taz T” was probably referring to a T-shirt embroidered with the Warner Bros. characters Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil.

That one was too easy. The Oaks has a Warner Bros. Studio Store. But, wait. Does a “Buz and Taz T” mean one T-shirt with both characters on it--or two T-shirts, each displaying just one of the characters?

Such decisions are difficult enough when deciphering the list of one’s own child--but for a stranger? There was a moment of stress as Cantor realized the cartoon figures appear either solo or en masse. But then she spotted it, a long-sleeved shirt with both Bugs and Taz sans Tweety and Daffy.


With no time to second-guess herself, Cantor snatched the midnight blue T-shirt, paused momentarily to consider the size, then headed for the checkout.

Penich was pleased with every item Cantor selected. The outfit for her niece could not have been cuter, and the simple 5-by-7-inch picture frames were exactly what she wanted.

“I feel so less stressed,” said Penich, who until Cantor came into her life had spent most of her shopping dollars on catalog orders.

Officials at The Oaks said they had shoppers like Penich in mind when they hired Cantor for the mall. “One of the major things is women don’t have enough time to shop,” Diane Brandes, marketing director for the mall. “You have career women and you have mothers at home for whom it’s hard to get to the mall.”

Rather than spend their money on catalog shopping, they can avoid the shipping costs and keep the sales tax dollars local, she said.

Cantor fell into her latest career accidentally. As the manager of a Beverly Hills art gallery in the early 1990s, a customer raved about her clothes. “I love how you dress. Where do you shop?” he asked her.

“He had a beautiful wife, but she didn’t know how to shop--she wasn’t making the most of what she had,” Cantor said. “I started shopping for her, for him and for his kids.”

Cantor already had a trained eye for what looks good. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and had done interior decorating for homes and offices.

Her new vocation as a freelance shopper took a turn for the busy when her art gallery patron encouraged his friends to make use of Cantor’s services.

She can simply find no pitfall to her job. “I love it. I mean, to get paid for it, how cool is that?”

Caren Glasser of Agoura Hills used Cantor’s service to change her “look” when Glasser made a career change last year from children’s performer to synagogue cantor. The move meant ditching Gap cutoffs in favor of slacks and suits.

The two spent countless hours together over five months, and when they were done, Glasser was a whole new person. “She basically overhauled me,” Glasser said of Cantor. “I’m so comfortable in this now. It’s so me. I’m able to shop for myself, but I’m so busy now, I still have her do it.”

Cantor herself only recently started shopping at The Oaks. Well, that’s not entirely true. She spent her allowance money there when she was in fifth grade at White Oak Elementary School in Westlake Village. Since then, she has done most of her shopping on Los Angeles’ Westside.

She says now, however, “I know every shop in this mall.”