Bowen Brothers calls it a day in downtown Macon

jkovac@macon.comJanuary 24, 2014 

In the hours before Bowen Brothers Clothiers closed its doors for the last time Friday, there wasn’t much left to sell.

Suit racks were all but barren. Shoe stands and shelves for shirts sat empty. The place looked naked or, to put it more gentlemanly, in an unbecoming stage of undress.

What wasn’t missing, though, was what made the place a destination for the debonair and down-home alike: its aim-to-please employees.

Theirs was a realm where old Macon bid farewell to polyester, where seersuckers were right at home and where metrosexual wasn’t in their vocabulary.

The shop opened on Mulberry Street in 1982. It soon became an inseam institution. A generation or two grew up and, in some cases, grew old sporting its wares.

Friday morning, a fellow from the Bibb County Board of Education dropped in to shake Harry Bowen’s hand and say he appreciated what “a great asset you are to the community.”

“We try our best,” said Bowen, who along with his brother George opened the shop 31 years ago.

Back then, “dress for success” was the catchphrase. Not that men don’t dress up these days. They do. But Bowen Brothers filled a niche.

“There’s only a small slice of the pie that appreciates quality and good service, and people being honest with them and not trying to sell them everything,” Bowen said. “We didn’t want you to walk out the door if it wasn’t just right.”

‘Something for anybody’

Bowen Brothers was the last of the traditional men’s stores in downtown.

A customer once bought a $2,000 Holland & Sherry suit -- 10 percent cashmere -- for a special anniversary.

“I always wanted something for anybody that wanted to come in,” Bowen said.

He put the store up for sale in recent months, but there were no takers. He even told prospects if they’d assume the merchandise debt he’d stay on part time, and that they could hire on his small staff.

Bowen, 66, said his is the fifth such store to shut down in Georgia in the past year. All the owners, he said, have been 65 to 75 years old.

“Young people just aren’t getting in retail,” Bowen said.

But he was ready to retire.

“If I had the choice, I’d be 10 years younger and work 10 more years,” he said. “And if the next 15 years go as fast as the last 15, I’ll be 81 before I know it. It’s hard for me to get my mind around it. ... It’s just mixed emotions. It was a lot of 3 o’clock in the morning, sitting on the side of the bed before I made my mind up.”

He still plans to host custom-suit sales a few times a year.

“We’ll probably have a website and be on the dreaded Facebook,” Bowen said.

When longtime employee Geraldine Hudson got to work Friday, she told Bowen, “Let’s change our minds, let’s don’t close up. ... But it’s too late now.”

Aside from some tables full of socks and others displaying slacks, the shop was as empty as the foyer that leads to the Wells Fargo Bank next door.

“We’ve sold so much stuff going out of business,” Bowen said, “I told somebody I was better at closing the store than I was at keeping it open.”

He has sold suits to men bound for presidential inaugurations and all manner of swearing-ins. He has sold suits to just about every Superior Court and federal judge in town, including William Augustus “Gus” Bootle, whose name adorns the federal courthouse across Mulberry from the shop.

Bowen said it was a prime spot to sell suits.

The Social Security Administration has a hearing room upstairs in the same building.

“Everybody that’s got a grievance has got an attorney,” he said.

‘It’s family retail’

It didn’t hurt that Bowen, his brother and their employees knew their way around menswear. Their clients included congressmen and every mayor since the shop opened.

One time, probably in the ‘70s, when Bowen was working at Stephens Men’s Shop in downtown, singer Freddy Fender walked in. Fender had apparently flown in for a concert -- without his luggage.

“I sold him a leisure suit,” Bowen said.

Was it ugly?

“It was a leisure suit,” Bowen said. “What do you think?”

The other day, a customer bought a $330 alligator belt on the condition that Bowen autograph and date it. Bowen obliged.

Employee Tonya Smith, who’s worked there 10 years, said longtime customers had stopped in to say goodbye this week, more than a few with tears in their eyes. Some said they almost couldn’t bear to look at the emptiness.

“It’s touching,” she said. “You know they really care about you. It’s not like a regular retail. It’s family retail.”

Smith, 43, taught many a man to tie bow ties.

Now she doesn’t know where she’ll work.

“It’s sad,” she said, “because you’re gonna miss everybody. But then it’s good because Harry gets to retire. But it’s a legacy.”

Two springs ago just down the block on Mulberry, Cassidy’s Garage, the last full-service filling station in town, closed for good.

Half a block north, Len Berg’s, a Southern dining destination for decades, is no more.

Now the haberdashery to the home folks has loosened its tie for the last time.

Said Smith, “I don’t like change.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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