03 January 2009

Simon's Copley Square, part 1

As I may have mentioned before, I was bit by the clothing bug at a young age. Having grown up with a thoroughly flamboyant grandmother on my Mom's side, a custom tailor grandfather on my Dad's side, and a pair of parents who like black music and dancing, you might say its in my blood. I wore a uniform to my Catholic elementary school, and prided myself on being the only kid in the fourth grade who not only didn't wear clip on ties, but actually tied them himself. Later, in high school, I wore a jacket and tie to school every day, despite the derision of nearly 1000 other young gents at that athletically leaning all boys institution. (twenty guesses which classmate they all remember).

Things really got going my sophomore year, when I got a job at Simon's Copley Square, an old family owned men's shop in Boston. For years, they would hire a guy from my school as the weekend cashier/ cleanup kid. When one kid left, they would call the vice principal who would announce the job over the loudspeaker during homeroom. When the guy before me left, he told them he knew the perfect kid to take over for him, the weird kid who wore a suit every day. I stopped by on a Saturday and after a brief chat the job was mine.

The place was real old school. Founded in 1905, my boss, Harold Simon, was third generation owner. We had two other stores Simon's State Street, in Boston's financial district, and Simon's Providence, in Rhode Island. (The Providence store had a large clientele of both cops and mafiosi, and the tailoring staff were particularly skilled in leaving a suit jacket bigger on one side, for the holster. It was their specialty).

I didn't realize it then, but the place was a dinosaur, a member of a dying breed, in the best way possible. It was all dark wood and brass. The neck ties were displayed on heavy oak tables. Framed illustrations from turn of the century men's clothing magazines hung on the walls.We sold sock garters and Royall Bay Rhum aftershave. The suits were all color coded, each size starting with solid navy, then grey, then tan and brown. We had a thing called 'Custom Choice' which was a suit with jacket and pants sold separately, and a discount for buying two pair of pants with the suit. We kept a rack of shirts and a collection of loafers in a closet by the fitting rooms for men to use while trying on suits, though most of our customers wore a suit to buy a suit. We had a staff of tailors who worked in house in a full shop in the basement. They were all Italian, true masters of their craft. Best of all, every suit, shirt, pair of slacks, overcoat or tuxedo we sold bore only one brand name: Simon's Copley Square.

That part of Boston was different then too. Newbury Street was just to our left, and there you can find Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuiton and Armani. But back then the old guard still remained. A block away was the Boston Shop, a satellite of the Andover Shop. Around the corner was Jos. A. Bank. Down the street was Acquascutum and the Custom Shop, a place that made dress shirts. A block in the other direction was the Brooks Brothers Boston store, and diagonally across from us, where the Ralph Lauren store is today, was Kakas Furs, where militant hippies would gather every weekend armed with megaphones and bags of red paint waiting from some old money Beacon Hill type to emerge decked in mink.

My job consisted initially of ringing the till, keeping the place tidy and soaking up bits of wisdom and extremely off-color jokes from the seasoned staff of three old Jewish guys and one old gay guy, all of whom had worked there for at least twenty five years. After I had been ther for a while, I was allowed to assist cusomer and even take some fittngs. We all wore suits, except on Friday, when a blazer or tweed jacket with flannels was permitted. (read: true business casual on Friday, not khakis and a tennis shirt) I was more flamboyant then, but most of what I know about real men's clothing I learned from those guys.

If business was slow on a Saturday, they used to send me out to spy on Brooks Brothers, see how they were doing. This was my favorite task. First, I would stroll the neighborhood, smoke a few cigarettes and do some window shopping, kill some time. Then I would go into Brooks Brothers and ride the elevator to the suit department and gawk at the mannequins. I'd wander around and soak up the atmosphere, until one of the salesmen decided to oust the weird teenager by asking me if I needed help. I'd say 'No thanks, just looking', stroll out, get a cup of coffee, go back to work and say, 'Brooks is dead too, maybe two guys looking.', or whatever my boss wanted to hear.

That's what I did on the weekend for spending money while my contemporaries worked at the supermarket or McDonald's.

I was 16 then, and it was the only time in my life that my job required me to dress in a suit.



Anonymous said...

"most of our customers wore a suit to buy a suit"

My tailor tells me that he has customers who come for suit jacket fittings wearing a short-sleeved shirt (or even a tee-shirt).

How far we have come!

Old School said...

Many thanks for this bit of personal/cultural/commercial history.

Fascinating details.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that you wore those suits to play primitive r&b with your high school jazz band/rockabilly explosion.

You owe those four dudes some Scotch and Impulse records.

Anonymous said...

I, too, recall those times in Boston. Now it's become very Europeanized, lots of cafes, beautiful people, niche designer cloting. Funny, then, despite the higher end stores, the shops around seemed affordable, in contrast today with all of the artisanal shops in the Back Bay.

Giuseppe said...


Of course you're right, but stories about the days of primitive r&b deserve their own post. I'll work uo to it some day.

Scotch and Impulse jazz records are always a good idea.

Jean Martha said...

Awesome post!!

initials CG said...

What a great post!

Striking ending too..the only job you had to wear a suit was when you were 16!


Kim said...

I love Royall Bay Rhum. I bought DOTR a bottle in Bermuda. Just because it seemed like I should.

Great post.

tintin said...

A great image. I worked with a Jewish guy in suits at Brooks. He always complained about being the poorest Jew in Philadelphia and was fond of telling his regular customers the same joke over and over. My favorite..."What's the difference between a Jewish American Princess and Jello?"

Unknown said...

I recently purchased a nice charcoal gray cotton suit from a guy down road from me via craigslist... The label inside the jacket reads "Simon's Copley Square - Boston, Providence. Nice to see some background on this company. Suit feels and fits great, save the fact that the pants are pleated and I really dislike pleats (but I was thinking of taking them to a tailor to see if they can be removed).

Nice post, cheers.

Back-to-School said...

It that true Mr. Ted?