CROSSIN AUSTIN BOULEVARD: This story is part of an ongoing series of articles that Austin Weekly News publishes about issues, events, people, places and things that take place west of Austin Boulevard, but that nonetheless resonate to the east of it, as well.
The Mister Shop is a retail unicorn. A bona fide mom-and-pop retail men’s clothing store, it started out as a suburban main street storefront, made the move to a regional shopping mall where it faced intense competition from national big-box retailers and then adapted and continued to thrive as shoppers fled bricks-and mortar shopping for the ease of internet clicks.
But, after a 73-year run – 47 of them at the North Riverside Park Mall – The Mister Shop is selling off its inventory as owner Randy Kurtz closes the doors to retire from the business his family started in Oak Park.
“I’m going to see my grandchildren grow up instead of missing my children growing up,” said Kurtz last week during an interview on The Mister Shop’s sales floor on the first day of the store’s blowout retirement sale. “I’ll go to all the Bulls games, and all the White Sox games. I missed most of them. I haven’t been to a Sox game in 10 years. Bulls games I kept going, but I get to go to more.”
For many years, the company was known as The Mister Shops, plural. Kurtz’s father and uncle opened the original location in 1948 close to Marshall Field’s on Lake Street near Harlem Avenue in Oak Park, but they added another at 3242 Harlem Ave. in Riverside in 1953. Later they would open a third location at Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road.
Randy Kurtz wasn’t necessarily destined to be part of the family business. Although he began helping out in Oak Park, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store as a 9-year0-old, he earned an accounting degree at the University of Illinois and worked as a certified public accountant for a time.
It wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t like accounting. It was too boring,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz said he was at the Riverside location when the family decided to make the move to the brand-new North Riverside Park Mall in order “to expand a little bit.” A Chicago Tribune ad from Sept. 19, 1975 announced the moving sale.
“Everything must be sold down to the bare walls!” the ad said.
The inventory included $165 Petrocelli suits on sale for $79.99, leisure suits (polyester casual suit combos unique to the mid-1970s) on sale for $69.99 and slacks for $8.99.
Kurtz, 66, still wears a suit to work, as do many of his male employees, illustrating the fashion sense that has made the store tick. It was a place where the well-dressed man went to buy suits, dress shirts and silk ties.
“I like what everybody likes about working here,” said Tony West, aka “Mr. West,” who for the last four years has worked as a salesman and manages The Mister Shop’s social media. “It’s the clothes, it’s the fashion, it’s the shoes, it’s the coats.”
West was a customer long before he was an employee. In fact, he said, he was a competitor at one time. Back in the day, West worked at the Bon-Ton Store in downtown Oak Park on Lake Street, not too far from The Mister Shop.
“[Kurtz] begged me for about a year to come work here, and I finally gave in,” said West, who also owns a small pest control business he operates a couple days a week. “I gave in thinking I’d help him out for about a year and it turned into four.”
The store employs 14 people, and they tend to be long-timers.
“No one’s left, ever,” Kurtz said. “You can’t get another store to say that.”
The Mister Shop’s longest-tenured employee was a man named “Doc” who worked for The Mister Shop for more than 50 years.
“He came with the store that my parents bought in 1953 in Riverside,” Kurtz said. “We just had a guy retire at 47 years, Jeff.”
West confirmed the loyalty Kurtz shows to employees.
“We have that deal where when you come in you have a lifetime contract,” West said. “He’s the kind of guy where you’ll never get fired, you’ll never get sent home. You can work for him forever as long as you’re willing.”
Employees may stay for a long time, but North Riverside Park Mall has changed dramatically since the day The Mister Shop moved in alongside anchor stores like Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott and J.C. Penney along with dozens of clothing stores that would come and go through the decades that followed.
The Mister Shop is one of the very few of the 100-plus original tenants still in business at North Riverside Park Mall. Apart from J.C. Penney, the only other tenant that can trace its roots back to the 1970s is Spencer’s.
“Who knew that we’d outlast Carson’s and Sears and Montgomery Ward’s?” Kurtz said.
What’s been the key? According to Kurtz, it’s been the store’s ability to adapt as business trends and clientele changed.
“I put in furs. I knew suits were going to go down 40 years ago, I could predict it,” Kurtz said. “I put in teams’ jackets and sold 500 of them. I expanded our shoe department. I have a jean department, I have a leather department. I made into more than mostly suits. Forty years ago people would wear a suit even to a sale.”
The Mister Shop has even weathered a move inside the mall itself. For four decades, The Mister Shop sat in something of a prime spot on the lower level near the center court. About seven years ago, the store moved to its present location closer to Round One. The store’s lease was expiring and the mall’s owners wanted that prime space for the Swedish clothier H&M.
“My lease was up and H&M could take six stores,” Kurtz said. “I didn’t want to. The middle of the mall’s better. The center is where everybody comes. If you come in from this side or that side you probably won’t make it to both ends.”
Despite all the challenges, Kurtz seems to thrive on the interaction with his employees and customers, some of whom came bearing gifts last week as word filtered out regarding his retirement.
“You get to meet all of these lovely people and all the lovely employees I’ve had over the years,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz has three daughters, but none is interested taking over the shop. According to a press release, Kurtz’s wife discouraged them from doing so due to the demands of the retail business.
“My wife was right,” he said. “While our friends were out on weekends, she and I worked 300 Saturdays in a row and every holiday. Even when the store was closed, there’s work to be done, ordering inventory, planning advertising and promotions and more.”
The Mister Shop’s official retirement sale ran through March 13, but the store will remain open during its normal hours until the remaining inventory is sold. Kurtz will decide later whether to continue the company’s online arm, TheMrShop.com.
“Longevity was the name of the game, and it broke his heart to have to want to give up, but you really have to think about what’s best,” West said of his boss. “We’ve thought about the people and consumers for 73 years. Now it’s time to start thinking about yourself.”