For several years now, Petway Reavis men’s clothing store had become less a place to pick up a camel hair sport coat than a signpost to an earlier age.
The window displays in its Church Street storefront always had the latest in business wear for the downtown Nashville businessmanconservatively cut suits, classy ties, gray slacks and office-appropriate shirts. And yet the store seemed increasingly to be shouting in the wind.
On the sidewalks outside, men in khakis and open collars went rushing past the window displays where pinstriped suits stood rigidly at attention. In today’s business-casual universe, Petway Reavis became something of an outpost of fashion civilization, a dressed-up relic fighting against all odds. Few were surprised, therefore, when its owners announced plans this week to cease operations. It is the last gentlemen’s clothing store to quit downtown.
Between the neatly ordered interior of its shelves and the messy world outside, the dissonance had become too great. “We made an attempt to go casual, but it just wasn’t as successful as we would have liked for it to have been,” says store owner John Minton, whose family has been involved with Petway Reavis for generations. “A suit is a $500 investment, and a man wants to have a say in that, but when it comes to buying a casual $50 shirt, he lets his wife pick him up one in the mall.”
Petway Reavis was founded in 1913 in the ground floor of the long-gone Maxwell House Hotel. In the early ’20s, Minton’s grandfather went to work for the store’s owners, Frank Reavis and Ed Petway. Later, he bought them out, entering a crowded field of family-owned men’s clothing stores. “It was the glory days of men’s retail downtown,” Minton recalls of the era from World War II through the mid-’60s. Competition was brisk. There was Joseph Frank & Son (specializing in Hart Schaffner & Marx), Davitt’s (Griffon and H. Freeman were its main brands), and Levy’s (a more stylish shop that opened in 1855 and today has a successful store in Green Hills). As for Petway Reavis, its big draw was its Kuppenheimer line. A discerning eye can see that a Kuppenheimer suit carries a trademark “K” sewn discreetly on the outside of the jacket’s breast pocket.
Lawyers, accountants, bankers and state employees frequented these bustling institutions, circling from one to the other on their lunch hours or before heading home from work. Many would argue they were as necessary to the world of business in the latter half of the 20th century as computer stores are today.
“I guess you’d say Petway Reavis is the last of the genteel stores,” observes Mark Schimmenti, who keeps a nearby office in the city’s Civic Design Center and is one of the more acute observers of urban life. “The fact is, the small men’s clothing store is the one thing that could last the longestit survived on people running out to buy a tie when theirs got dirty.”
Once upon a time, a Nashville man would head to Petway Reavis to pick up a new shirt before attending a cocktail party straight from work. Or he might drop in on his way to a meeting to buy more pocket handkerchiefs. On important occasionsa raise, a promotion, a deal closinga Nashville man might have wandered through the racks in search of a new suit. But as habits and lifestyles have changed, Nashville men rarely do any of those things. Increasingly, when they go to work, they look as if they’ve just stepped off a boat.
If fashion trends augured badly for Petway Reavis, there were other reasons for its demise. For starters, as more stores opened up outside the downtown area, the Saturday business for downtown stores went away. Minton himself adds that the economics of running Petway Reavis got particularly rough in recent years. “One of the main reasons we’re going out of business is the events related to Sept. 11 and the slowdown in the economy.”
The decades-long decline of commercial activity in Nashville’s downtown is part of a national phenomenon. Consumers have fled family-owned storefronts for the razzle and dazzle of malls at city’s edge. The transformation has been ugly and painful, and now, with Petway Reavis’ departure, the book appears to have completely closed. “We’ve been able to stay alive downtown about 20 years longer than anyone thought we would,” Minton observes. “I have loved downtown, and it’ll always be a special part of my life and my history.”
In another day and age, a city loved it too. A going-out-of-business sale takes place this week.
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