I like nice clothes that I can’t find in department stores like Macy’s or JC Penney: button-down pinpoint oxfords, camel hair sport coats and herringbone suits that will be in fashion for years. Clothes like these are hard to find except in fairly large cities. Often they are sold by self-employed haberdashers who choose their merchandise very carefully for a select clientele who come back year after year. These merchants take their occupation seriously, trying to find the exact merchandise to satisfy not just customers, but their “clientele.”
A few of these small shops are still found tucked between banks and brokerage houses in century-old business districts, while others are located in suburban strip malls near upscale wine shops, boutiques, and jewelry stores. Inside, the atmosphere is a bit formal, decorated tastefully with carefully selected paintings of sail boats and fox hunts, and a touch of freshly arranged flowers carefully placed on an exquisite cherry table. In the background one can hear a piano playing softly, Beethoven or perhaps jazz. The atmosphere makes a client feel as if he has been invited to someone’s home, not just a store, where shopping is a leisurely experience, not a chore. It brings to mind how the JP Morgan Banking Co. must have made its high net worth customers feel one hundred years ago when they had a private banker.
Twenty or thirty years ago, I discovered the Gentry Shop in a deteriorating Iowa river town, surrounded by empty store fronts, grimy restaurants and tattoo parlors. I was puzzled. How could a merchant attract customers to an area filled with such urban decay? How could he sell upscale brands like Ralph Lauren, Pendleton, Corbin, and Southampton to people who might question the safety of parking out in front? I was to find out very quickly.
Although housed in part of the first floor of what was once a large arcade, the facility was so dated that customers had to take a key and climb up a back stairway to use the restroom. Nevertheless, the men’s shop was filled with piles of attractive shirts and sweaters and racks of suits and sports jackets, all priced competitively. Apparently, despite the location, the shop seemed to be doing quite a business because six or eight clerks were assisting at least an equal number of customers, not just checking them out. Handsome young college students, the sales people, were well trained to point out new products, note favorite colors, or emphasize special sales. They seemed to know their customers and exactly what they were doing. As I came through the door, the short, sandy-haired owner, who looked as if he had just come off the golf course, extended his hand in welcome: “Hi, I’m Greg Kautz. How may I help you?”
I headed for the coats and suits as he grilled me about my interests – sizes, colors, fabrics, brands, and the like. He probably asked, “Do you play golf?” Within minutes as I began trying on articles of clothing, he was probing me for more information he needed if I were to become a loyal, ongoing customer: “Where do you live? What do you do? How often do you come to the Quad Cities?”
Meanwhile, I settled on a brown Ralph Lauren suit. He suggested a couple of paisley ties that would blend well with the herringbone. Watching my pennies, I chose just one. Since I had to have an alteration, Greg said that he would mail the garment free of charge to my home in Illinois. I paid Greg, and we parted with a handshake. I was pleased with the transaction – I found what I wanted at a reasonable price, and I was treated with the utmost attention. I just might come back again.
A few days later, I opened a package from the mail, the suit carefully hanging from a smart mahogany hanger emblazoned in gold: “The Gentry Shop.” Attached to the garment was the tie that I had picked out as well as a handwritten note: “Karl, thanks so much for your business. I included the second tie which I think you will enjoy, too. No extra charge. Come see us when you’re back in town. Greg.” I will go back.
Six months later, when the Gentry Shop had a sale on summer wear, I drove over to Davenport, even though it was over one hundred miles one-way from my home. Just as it was in January, the shop was packed with customers, but this time so many prevented me from talking with Greg. I left empty handed simply because I didn’t need anything. As I headed out the front door, Greg went out of his way to wave goodbye.
Later that evening, when I was watching the news at home in Illinois, the telephone rang. “Karl, this is Greg at the Gentry Shop. I saw you in the store today, but we were unable to talk. I noticed that you didn’t buy anything, but I hope you were helped by someone and you didn’t have any problems.” I was not annoyed by his call, but I was shocked to know that I had found a genuine salesman who was more interested in my satisfaction than my check. “No Greg, there was no problem. I just couldn’t find anything I needed.”
For several decades, I made my semi-annual trips from Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, not just to buy clothes but to see, not just a clothing salesmen, but to visit my friend, Greg. Even if months or years passed between the time when we met, Greg NEVER forgot my name. Over the years, things have changed, including the Gentry Shop. No longer located in an abandoned arcade where you needed to ask for a key to unlock the restroom, Greg built a beautiful new complex in a strip mall, where he sells both men’s and women’s wear to people who like nice clothes – button-down pin-point oxfords, camel hair sport coats, and herringbone suits that will be in fashion for years to come. And, you can well imagine Greg’s customers are still not just customers, but friends, whom he never forgets: “Hi, Karl, good to see you again. How’s everything in Peoria? Have you taken up golf yet?”
Karl K. Taylor