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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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Short men shop at Brown’s ‘because it fits’

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Lou Brown

TORONTO — Lou Brown isn’t a big guy to start with – five-foot-six at his peak, and now, with the passage of time, closer to five-foot-four.

At that height, it would seem he’d be a natural to come up with a concept in men’s retailing to satisfy the needs of guys just like him – a store that caters to the, how shall we put this in the politically correct times in which we live, the vertically challenged.

Brown, 84, predates political correctness by a generation or two, so the name of his store is Brown’s, A Short Man’s World. Alternatively, it’s called Shortman Brown’s, while the store’s promotional material proclaims: “Nobody’s bigger in short.”

Brown’s definition of short is somewhat flexible. If you’re five-foot-eight or under, the store is for you.

As far as men’s apparel stores go, Brown’s has it all: suits, slacks, ties, shirts, belts, shoes – sizes range from 5-1/2 to eight – and outerwear. There are two locations, one on Avenue Road, not too far from Wilson Avenue, the other at 545 Queen St. W.

Business is good despite the economic downturn of recent years. “We do six figures in sales per store,” Brown said.

The bulk of the store’s designer suits range in price from $698 to $998, though some higher-end items are available.

What makes the store unique is that all the apparel is specifically tailored for short men. You can’t just hem pants for shorter people or shorten sleeves. The pockets won’t be right, the pant knee will be too low, the garment won’t look good, he said.

Same with jackets and outerwear. You can come in here at five-foot-five and be fitted properly,” he said.

Clearly there’s a market for the kind of “destination store” Brown and his late father, Willy, created. People come from across the city and even from outside the country for the store’s clothing.

Brown’s is a typical immigrant success story.

The store, like Lou, started out 84 years ago, but back then it had not carved out a niche in the short men’s market.

His dad, an immigrant from Poland, “couldn’t get a job because he was Jewish. He finally got a job at a pant factory, but he didn’t know the first thing about tailoring,” Brown said.

The Jewish owner of the business agreed to train him if he’d work for nothing. After two weeks as a pocket-maker, Willy approached the boss and asked for $5 a week. The boss turned him down, so he quit and went to work for a competitor at $8 a week.

“After a few months, he decided he won’t get anywhere as a pant-maker. So he opened his own second-hand clothes store on Queen,” the same address as the current store, Brown said.

At the time, Queen Street was full of Jewish-owned businesses. His three uncles also had clothing stores on the avenue.

Called Brown’s, the shop was all of 450 square feet. The family lived above the store.

Brown attended Ryerson Public School and then Harbord Collegiate, but he dropped out at 16.

“I wasn’t a scholar, but I had a knack for talking and I joined my dad in the second-hand store,” he said.

It was a rather unusual circumstance that prompted him to suggest that the store move from second-hand clothes to new ones. As Brown tells it, “working in a second-hand store, the girls wouldn’t date you. I told dad, I’m having a problem.”

His father agreed to expand the business. It went from all second-hand apparel to half new, half previously worn.

At the time, his dad would buy suits from Baldwin Street pedlars for $5. He’d clean them, patch them up and put them for sale for $8. “It was a good profit in those days.”

As time went by, business improved. By the 1950s, the store had expanded into four locations, including New Toronto and an outlet at Lawrence Plaza.

But for Lou, things were getting a little stale. “After awhile, it wasn’t exciting any more. My father was building houses and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. It was just a job.”

A new idea sprang Brown out of his funk. A lot of men of European stock would come in to buy. Many were short.

“I saw the need… Shorter men would come in, and we didn’t have enough stock [to fit them].”

By then, the family had moved out of the upstairs rooms on Queen Street, so he suggested to his dad they call it “the loft” and stock it with clothing appropriate for shorter people.

To make sure they had the right merchandize, Brown approached manufacturers with whom the family had a good relationship, and had them design suits and shirts appropriate for the new client base. That meant sleeves and pockets were cut to look good on shorter customers.

It was in the 1970s, and Shortman Brown’s was created.

People loved it, Brown recalled. “This lawyer comes in with his wife, a short guy. He’d heard about us. She said he always was in a hurry, and while I was talking to his wife, he comes up and says, ‘I feel like I’m in a candy store.’ That gave me a lot of encouragement.”

After a few years, the store was selling more short apparel than regular. The downstairs at Queen shifted over to short merchandize and accessories were added. There’s even a line of clothing for the extra short – guys around five-foot-three.

As the store’s radio ad’s signature line tells it, you’d buy at Browns, “because it fits.”

At one point, the Avenue Road store carried both men’s and women’s clothing, but today, the upstairs has been turned over to clothing for “stout men” as well as off-season wear.

“We’re strictly 100 per cent a destination store. People come from all over the country,” said Brown.

“We have tailors in both store, and if a guy comes in from out of town and he’s going back, we’ll fix him up right away.

“We only have two things to sell you, fit and service, nothing else. We give honest value.”

As for his father, Willy worked in the business until age 93, when he was killed in an auto accident. Lou continues to come into the store six days a week, but he admits he keeps bankers’ hours – in at the crack of 11, out at 3. His two sons, Robbie and Jeffrey, run the stores, but he likes to come in and kibbitz with the customers.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a hobby. It has nothing to do with business anymore. It’s a hobby.”

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