Mt. Oliver Men's Shop is closing down after 80 years

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Everything must go, almost everything is half off and Ralph Woods' relief has a bittersweet aftertaste.

After 80 years, the last 21 under his ownership, the Mt. Oliver Men's Shop at 201 Brownsville Road has paid its last privilege tax, filed its last tax form and is selling itself out of inventory.

The store is open when Mr. Woods isn't working his side job as a casino dealer and part-time at Abe Bernstein's clothing store on the South Side.

Through the rest of the year, or until he sells out, he will pick from handmade signs he keeps near the door to post according to his schedule: "Open at 11," "Open Wed. 10-5," "Open Fri.," "Back at 2:30."

Mr. Woods, who bought the building in 2001 and lives above the store, said he would close it by the end of this year.

"When I bought the store," he said, "I thought I'd do this the rest of my life. I wish I could have sustained it until my retirement."

He began working for then-owner Paul Helfer in 1979 when he was 15.

"I was taking a German class and they were planning a trip to Germany and I wanted to go. My mom said, 'You can go if you pay for it,' so I started applying all over the place and this was the store that called me back."

Mr. Helfer had bought the store from his father-in-law, Sam Rosenfeld, in 1962, and his son Rick took it over in 1982.

Rick Helfer, who has since gotten into the vertical blind business, said the store once did good enough business to take on 15 employees at Christmas.

In 1987, he began renting tuxedos. Mr. Woods called it "a nice add-on business because I didn't get the bill until after the event, and I didn't have them as inventory."

He said he enjoyed the job "because it was mine, I didn't have to answer to anyone else and I always had a few dollars in my pocket. I never had an employee, didn't need one."

When the nation's economy went into a death spiral in 2008, Mr. Woods was preoccupied with an illness in the family and said he started getting behind.

"I thought the next year would be better. This store made it through the Depression. But then I had another bad year, and I couldn't restock because everyone wants paid up front."

One day recently, Dorothy Holzwarth, her husband, Terence, and their grandson, Trent, 5, visited to buy Trent his first pair of Dickies pants. They live in Knoxville and have shopped at the Mt. Oliver Men's Shop for 41 years, she said.

"This is a real shame" that it's closing, she said. "My husband gets all his work clothes, long underwear, ties and belts here. If the pants are too long, Ralph would hem them for free."

"Maybe that's the reason I'm going out of business," Mr. Woods said.

"You should charge at least $10," she said.

Brownsville Road has many retail businesses, but people need to drive outside the neighborhood for many things, unlike when it was "a mini-Downtown," Mr. Woods said.

"I've had a few questions from people who are interested in this storefront," he said. "But I don't think they know what it would take. I don't want to give the building away just to leave, and I wouldn't rule out doing something else here myself, just not clothing."

He said some people are intimidated by that stretch of Brownsville Road because of loiterers.

"By the time they walk from their cars to get here, three people have asked them for quarters," he said. "But I have never been robbed. I'd have to write an IOU if I were."

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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