Men’s Shop in downtown York marks 65 years in business

dworthington@heraldonline.comOctober 21, 2013 

— Procrastination is not in Ronnie Bailes’ makeup.

He arrives for work at The Men’s Shop every morning at 8:30 and the doors don’t open until 9.

The shop closes at 6, but he won’t leave until every customer is attended to.

He tries to keep ahead of business every day.

“It’s a big puzzle, a big game,” he says. “You have to stay on it every day, you have to manage it to make money.”

But it is the procrastinators – especially men – who Bailes caters to.

Need a new suit for a job interview or wedding and you have put it off to the last minute? Bailes is your man. He can have a tailored suit in your hands in a matter of days.

Just have to have a pair of purple pants or a size 15 shoe? Bailes is your man. He knows who to call, and he will have what you want as quickly as possible. Just like Burger King, special orders don’t upset Bailes. They are the staple of his business.

And when a man – and his wife – walk in, Bailes is their man too. He said a woman helping a man shop generally results in a 20-percent increase in sales. The man may have come just for a shirt, but a wife will make sure he leaves with another shirt, a matching tie or two, maybe even a pair of pants.

Bailes is the second generation of his family to run The Men’s Shop on North Congress Street. His father, Furman, started the shop in York shortly after returning from World War II. Ray King partitioned 900 square feet of his Western Auto store at 33 North Congress St. for Furman.

The store stayed there until Ronnie Bailes moved it to its current, larger space at 49 North Congress St. The location had been Clarence Motz’ carpet and floor covering business.

When Bailes took ownership in 1972 there were three men’s stores in Rock Hill, one in Fort Mill, one in Clover and his in York.

“Now I’m the last man standing,” he said. Bailes estimates there are fewer than 200 men’s store left in the Carolinas. His closest competitors are in Spartanburg and Greer, and he frequently talks with their owners. Sharing information – and sometimes even merchandise – is one of keys to success, he said.

Because The Men’s Store is a specialty store, Bailes makes no apology for his prices. A top-of-the-line suit can cost $700, and a mid-range suit $300. A white shirt with French cuffs is $70, and a ball cap with the logo of a Labrador retriever sporting a bowtie is $20 – and up.

What Bailes sells is quality and customer service. His suits can last up to 20 years and most are American made. Suits from Hardwick Clothes in Cleveland, Tenn, carry the label that says “The Men’s Shop, York, S.C.”

His logo merchandise lines of t-shirts, polo shirts and the like have icons such as skipjacks, labs, bird dogs and the ubiquitous Palmetto tree. His sportswear lines have taken up so much of the store’s space that “the front of my shop looks like a T-shirt store,” he said with a laugh.

Two of his lines, Sewell suits of Bremen, Ga., and Florsheim shoes, have been sold since the store opened.

Bailes will size up a customers – literally – the first time they walk through the door. When former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee came to York while campaigning for president, other merchants gave him freebies. When Thompson entered The Men’s Shop, Bailes tried to sell him an extra-long suit.

Bailes and his staff – mostly college students or retirees – are good listeners. Unlike when he started, customers now want a specific item. Bailes will special order the size, color, pattern they want and call them when it arrives. If they don’t like it, Bailes will usually keep it in stock.

“The customer is always right,” Kenny Bratton, of Bratton Funeral Home, said.

Bratton hung around the shop as a teen when his brother worked there in the 1970s.

“He hung around so much that I put him on the payroll,” Bailes said.

One of Bratton’s first jobs was to make the “Collect-a-suit-club” rounds on Saturday mornings. He went to doctors’ offices, shops and liquor stores to collect whatever someone could pay on their accounts. Many gave him $2 every week until the suit was paid for, he remembered.

The lessons learned at The Men’s Shop are ones he continues to use daily at the funeral home, he said.

Being a good listener also helps Bailes anticipate changing fashion trends. Inventory is usually purchased a season or even a year in advance.

Most of all, Bailes said adapting to change – in fashion and business practice – has been the key to his success. “I’ve been doing this 41 years and I’m still excited about change.”

When he took ownership in 1972, men’s stores would typically have 80 percent of their assets tied up in inventory, and sale volume “would cover up your buying mistakes,” he said Now, he has about 30 percent invested in inventory and he reorders more frequently.

The shop is celebrating 65 years in business, and Bailes – who turns 65 in January – said there are no signs of stopping. Neither of his adult children is interested in running the business, he said. It’s also a difficult business to sell because it is based on relationships with customers, an asset that’s almost impossible to transfer. Trust is built one sale a time.

Most of all, Bailes wants to see how things continue to change. The store is more attuned to social media. A page for his 65th anniversary got more than 3,500 likes. With the economy slowly recovering, “I want to see this through, see it come back.”

Whatever the changes, there will be one constant. It’s the sign over the front window display. It’s a slogan from suit maker Hart, Schaffner and Marx and one of Bailes tenets too.

“Dress up or dress down, that’s your business. Dress well, that’s our business.”

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