TIPTON – Fields Mens Wear, a local retail anchor for 154 years after opening its doors just eight years after Iowa gained statehood, will hold a quitting business sale that begins for the public on Oct. 7.
Owner Tom Petitgout said today that while the company has operated under different names through the years, it has always persevered through the economic ups and downs and constant changes in fashion and consumer tastes.
“Tipton is a great little town. The whole county has super people and we’ve had people come to us from a long ways away for many years,” Petitgout said. “This business has been a wonderful thing for my wife and me, but the days of the independent store are just about numbered.”
He added, “It’s really been a great ride. The last thing on my mind is to close the place, but I’ve become older and it’s harder to go to market. It’s harder to appeal to the younger market of men in their 30s and 40s. Times change. It’s time for me do something else.”
A public sale of the store’s inventory at sharply reduced prices begins at 8:00 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 7. The sale will continue until its entire stock of clothing is sold. The store’s extended business hours will run from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Sunday.
Fields, located at 106 E. Fifth St., began under a grander name: The Great Western Clothing Emporium. Originally a harness shop and clothier, the emporium evolved into strictly a menswear store over time.
“Back in those days, every county in the state had at least one menswear store and most had two or three,” Petitgout said, noting that Cedar County had three men’s clothing stores well into the 1960s. “But this store was something special for a community of Tipton’s size.”
Petitgout, who had been working at local grocery store since he was 14, started working at Fields in 1967 as a 22-year-old. Keith Fields hired Petitgout when Keith’s partner, Herm Leabhart retired that year. Keith then changed the name to Fields Mens Wear and Petitgout kept the name after he took over in January 1990.
Petitgout has seen fashions and fads come and go. “They all laugh about leisure suits, but we didn’t laugh at the time. They sold like a house on fire,” he recalled.
One challenge for Main Street menswear stores, Petitgout notes, is the long-running trend of casual clothes. A Fields mainstay has been the strong demand for tuxedos at prom time and the demand for new shirts and ties for homecoming and other dances.
“I’ve waited on the grandparents, parents and now the kids. It’s good to see them dressed up – they do look so nice – but that lasts for just one day,” he said.
When Petitgout entered the clothing trade a pair of Levi Strauss jeans cost $5, neckties and belts sold for $1.50 and a brand name suit would retail for $85. Store buyers would gather at the Hotel Fort Des Moines to buy from wholesalers. Today, the dwindling numbers of independents travel to Minneapolis to meet with suppliers.
“Everybody asks, ‘Is this one of a kind?’ That’s what they kid me about. It’s going to be in my obituary,” Petitgout laughed. “But merchandise doesn’t come by the piece. It comes by the dozen, and that makes it harder for the independent store to appeal to customers, too.”
Petitgout notes the industry seems to run in 10-year cycles. The 1970s were the go-go years followed by a decade of the worst Iowa economy since the Depression years. Business rebounded strongly in the 1990s and 1997 was “probably the biggest year we’ve ever had here.” The new century got off to a mediocre start but consumer confidence stalled with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“People have been scared about what’s going to happen next. There’s no optimism. In the ‘80s, we had optimism that tomorrow was going to be a better day and the ‘90s were better,” Petitgout said. “So, let’s hope it changes and 2011 brings us back strong.”
However consumers feel about the future, Tipton’s next decade will start without a men’s clothing store for the first time since before the Civil War.
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