A Man Of The Cloth

Editor’s Note: Next week esteemed author and Ivy-Style contributor Daniel D. Covell is publishing a piece here about the closed Brooks flagship store in Manhattan. In research, he spoke to his brother, Rev. Brian Covell, about the Reverend’s own experience working at Brooks. The following are his recollections, and lessons.

In the late 1990s, while I was waiting to land a full-time post in the field in which I was university-trained and ordained, that is, parish ministry, I needed to pay off bills and college loans. A friend told me that he heard that the Brooks Brothers on Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” was looking for experienced menswear sales types, preferably male. I was (and am) male, and I’d had several years’ experience in on-the-floor menswear sales at the two most prominent retailers on Waterville, Maine’s Main Street commercial district adjacent to City Hall: Levine’s (“The Store for Men and Boys” went its’ slogan) and Sterns Department Store, with the balance spent with the latter. Both shops, long since shuttered, provided no small amount of shop craft on first, how to size up one’s customers literally and figuratively, and second, how to spot the difference between a well-crafted garment and its opposite. These details were ladled out parsimoniously by canny, cranky old clerks who’d been dressing families for First Communions, marriages and funerals for decades—in a few cases since prior to World War II. 

So resume in hand, I went in to that Brooks store (sadly now closed) on the corner of Michigan and Huron, and was politely but firmly directed to contact the Brooks store in the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, an upscale North Shore shopping enclave, still in operation. Within a week I was hired at that store and placed on a management training track. The woman who ran the store was hard-charging, witty and (out of customer earshot) profane, very experienced both with the BB brand and in fashion retailing in general. My training in the pastoral healing and teaching arts meant next to nothing to her, but her caustic style with employees belied her knowledge of the entire Brooks line, from the boardroom three-button sack suit to the swimwear for the beach. She expected us to learn it, too, and who better to teach us than our in-house tailors, one Greek, one Russian, each of whom had been specifically trained at the BB tailor’s school in the basement of the flagship store at 346 Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan (dutifully designated as “Store One” in the Brooks accounting system at the time).

In terms of working with customers, the regional and in-store managers emphasized a particular way to “do consultative sales.” By that they meant to ask questions about the customer’s preferences on size, fit and shade of a garment. In doing so, the belief was that helping the customer figure out what their own ideas were on the look they aspired to create, the Brooks line would sell itself. 

I found that to be the case in some instances, like in selling Shetland wool sweaters (“I think I look best in crimson, don’t you?” a returning customer used to say on his twice-monthly visit to the store, either a thick wool or light cotton sweater purchased on each trip, depending on the season). Yet more often than not, customers wanted to be taken to a specific item – typically, this involved suit selection – and wanted to hear the salesperson’s particular knowledge about said item as they made their final choice, with my blessing. In other words, they wanted not to lead in the choosing, but to be led by an experienced pair of eyes; this I had learned this from the old clerks I trained with years before in Waterville. For example, clients would ask why a Bemberg lining so important for the drape of a suit coat and, as a former Northwestern University linebacker once asked, “will it make my expanding Middle American waistline not look so paunchy?” In other instances, selecting between the thickness and “hand” of specific types of British or Italian wool – both of which were proprietary to Brooks – for a specific client was sometimes challenging, occasionally unnerving, but also usually fun, even with a manager not above berating the help over a minor slip-up, or not making the day’s store-wide sales target.

Legendary New York newspaper columnist Murray Kempton once wrote to another journalist on the character of the mobsters whose trials he covered in great detail, relating, “You know, most of these guys, when you meet them, are just as bad as respectable people.” The Brooks store in Skokie was patronized by just such “respectable” folk, the type of people you’d assume were the opposite of La Cosa Nostra, and from whom a clerk might expect a certain courtliness and gentility from these residents of Winnetka and Lake Forest, who on any given Sunday would spend an hour or so in discretionary shopping after lunch and receiving communion at the village Episcopal church. And in fact that was often the case, as when two bachelor octogenarian brothers came in on successive Mondays one December to do their Christmas shopping, armed with their handwritten lists delineating their nephews’ sizes and color preferences. It was a sepia-toned step back in time as they regaled me and Dick Finley, a wonderful sales mentor of mine, on what holiday commerce was like at the downtown Marshall Field’s in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. I watched in admiration and with a touch of jealousy as Mr. Finley draped, then sold a vicuña overcoat of a rich caramel hue over the eldest brother’s shoulders. “Now that is an outer garment proper for Sunday mass, Ted,” the younger brother exclaimed. “Yes,” Ted the elder responded. “Good enough even for our oldest nephew to wear to our funerals!” 

“You have a pretty good time with this job”: That insight was from my favorite repeat customer, long-time National Football League referee Jerry Markbreit. I understand that he’s the only head referee in league history to officiate in four Super Bowls. A North Shore resident, Jerry was an amiable gentleman I used to see on occasion wearing his navy Brooks blazer before or after trips to playoff games in places like Dallas or Los Angeles. I once asked him if his official’s outfit needed mending or tailoring. “I don’t look that bad on screen, do I?” he chuckled. I told him of course, no, he didn’t, but I thought our wizard-like tailors could’ve upgraded his zebra-striped shirt a bit. As officials and menswear clerks know well, the camera never lies, so you better look good. 

Once again, Jerry had made the right call. I didn’t just like the job, I loved it, yet for every patron of this quality, there seemed to be three or more who were far more demanding and/or unreasonable. One noteworthy recollection was when gentleman from Wisconsin and his wife arrived in the store about an hour before closing on Christmas Eve, lugging a stack of suits. They did not ask, nor plead nor beseech, but rather demanded that the suits be altered within a week. The senior tailor and assistant manager in measured tones tried to reason with the couple that this was impossible, as the store was crowded with customers at the height of the holiday crush, but they wouldn’t hear it. In stepped our manager. She’d seen it all before. Placing the suits in a big new Brooks bag, she said quietly: “It’s the night before Christmas. January 15th is the best we can do. Otherwise, enjoy the holidays.” The couple grabbed the bag and left in a huff, muttering about calling “the home office” to complain. “You need a thick skin to survive in this business,” she said more than once, “and to know what complaints to take seriously.” She could be tough to work for, sometimes unreasonable, but I took that lesson she imparted into parish ministry. It applied there, just as it had on the sales floor at Brooks. 

  • Rev. Brian Covell

20 Comments on "A Man Of The Cloth"

  1. Richard E. Press | August 24, 2023 at 9:49 am |

    Not unlike the scene past and present at J. Press,—well delineated Reverend, Reb Richard Press

  2. Absolutely fantastic. Thank you, Rev. Covell.

  3. Great article. Nothing beats retails floor experience for life lessons. You meet ALL different people and knowing how to deal with them the experience is invaluable. I think all MBA’s should have training like Rev. Covell before they graduate to teach them how to deal with people.
    Thank you Rev.Covell

  4. Rev. Corelli,

    I saw something for the first time last week, a black pinstriped suit worn with a black shirt and clerical collar. A grey chalk-stripe suit or light grey Harris tweed jacket would be better in my opinion, and never navy blue.
    Three questions:
    1. What to wear for an odd jacket in hot weather?
    2. Do they teach these things at Seminary?
    3. And what of this taking a job in order to “pay off college loans” thing?

    • John Burton | August 24, 2023 at 4:06 pm |

      1. Good question
      2. Good question
      3. Political statement

      • 1. To clarify the question, best hot weather jacket and trousers with black shirt and clerical collar?

        3. An observation. Kinda hard not to notice. Regarding the practice, Is it Trad, or Ivy? I am assuming that in the heyday, one either paid the full fare up front, or a reduced rate with scholarships. I really would like to know, as it is a topic of discussion at Church regarding our Seminarians. Somewhat recently, our congregations pick up the tab minus room and board for Sem, not undergrad. And by the way, that “uniform” isn’t free. And the vestments, I would assume, could run into the thousands. And then there are the books.

  5. My vicarious apologies for BigTech’s concupiscent and actual misspelling of your name, Rev. Covell. (This time BT went with “Cowbell”, but I caught it.) Artificialis Intelligentia is anti-Christ.

    • Brian Covell | August 25, 2023 at 5:02 am |

      Bopper: I don’t take exception to your third question. Indeed I myself asked it often in the spring quarter of my final year in seminary. I was late to the game in applying for open parish ministry positions due to my June graduation date, and I had geographical restrictions to boot—I was determined to limit my search to the Chicago-Milwaukee metropolitan “corridor,” if you will, due in large measure to my spouse’s employment at a large Chicago-based non-profit organization. The process took some time, but eventually I found a parish calling, first in the Milwaukee suburbs, and later within Chicago’s city limits on the Far West Side. Patience was indeed a virtue, but not without its challenges.

  6. Reminds me of the BB store in downtown Chicago in the 80s
    and later when I moved moved to the Bay Area through the
    early 2000s. Knowledgeable, usually mature, staff with a
    few younger clean-cut, well-dressed sales people. Then
    something changed. Old timers gone. Replaced with young
    ignoramuses, often wearing “street ware”, who seemed not to
    have been trained, and didn’t even no their stock, nor how to
    order from a different branch. The store on Post St is now gone.

  7. Loved reading this, Rev. Covell. Thank you!

    Kind Regards,


  8. I have a reverend cousin who is thrice Yale credentialed in divinity and theology.

    I have two suits from the flagship that I will wear forever.

    I love this site when it goes down this path of remembrance. It reminds me of family and all the thing I did when I didn’t know what I was doing.

  9. Thank you, John, for publishing this. This is the kind of thing—rarely if ever found elsewhere—that I come to Ivy Style for.

  10. Charlottesville | August 25, 2023 at 10:08 am |

    Thank you, Rev. Covell, for your enjoyable reminiscences of the latter days of Brooks as a bastion of traditional style. Roger Sack’s memories of the knowledgeable, professional sales staff in the Chicago store in the 80s and 90s matches my experience in Washington and New York at that time. I no longer even bother going into the stores, but am thankful for the significant portion of my wardrobe that came from Brooks in that era. Surprisingly, most of it is in excellent shape decades later, and the classic Ivy style still earns compliments on a regular basis.

  11. Thank you for this. Wonderful reminiscence. Maybe the beginning of a longer memoir?

    Ah, memories of the legendary Paterson, NJ ocbd, unlined Alden-for-Brooks leisure handsewn moc (penny laofer), flannel sack suits, voluminous boxer shorts, lightweight Shetland tweeds, and tri-patch pocketed hopsack blazers. Before all marketing/advertising vernacular (“Ivy,” “Natural Shoulder,” “Preppy,” “Trad”…) the style was, simply and certainly, Brooks.

    Still is. For all the dangers, toils and snares that have accompanied Brooks’ multi-chaptered history, Eastern Establishment grace abounded: there’s a proper, polished elegance that a lion’s share of campus shops, frumpish and rumpled and not infrequently unkempt, never embodied.

  12. whiskeydent | August 26, 2023 at 2:06 pm |

    BB’s store in downtown Austin had a prime location five blocks from a state capitol full of legislators, lobbyists and staff. What’s more, it was surrounded by several banks, stock brokerages, and deep rug law firms.

    Yet, it was almost always empty every time I went there. Why? I think it was the staff. With the exception of one woman in her mid-30’s, the rest of the sales people appeared to be UT students working part-time. The kids didn’t know diddly squat.

    Brooks shut the store a year or two before the bankruptcy, and the location is now a restaurant. Oddly, the Jos. A. Bank down the street is still open.

  13. I’d bet that during the boom years, most BB stores were located downtown, in the financial district of the biggest cities. Expanding to suburban malls, there wasn’t near enough expertise available to man the stores, and the inventory, determined by zip code, was marketed to suburban moms. How many big league cities have or had a BB store downtown since, I dunno, the late 80s? We all would have been better off in the long run had they placed their stores in or near the big buildings downtown, downsized their floor-space if necessary, and validated parking.

    • whiskeydent | August 28, 2023 at 9:23 am |

      Because of the eternal economic boom around here, the rents downtown have skyrocketed and forced several other longtime, locally owned businesses to close. Meanwhile, a mall filled with high-end brands opened up in the northern part of town. So BB did face some economic and competitive pressure, but they did nothing to deal with it. Instead, they cut costs with crappy staff and clothes. It seems like a lot of failing brands cannibalize themselves on their way down to bankruptcy.

  14. I learned how to size a guy up working at Richman Brothers, a Cleveland firm, in the early 80s. Now, I walk into a place, tell them what size I am, and they try to put me in a suit that is several inches too small. What more can I do? Maybe I’ll go to a “Big and Tall” store and look around a bit. Except I’m not tall. I’m not chubby either. I just have an American build. I continue to work out, so I won’t be getting any more Euro-veganite anytime soon. I tried my mtm BB from 2012 just yesterday and almost busted it open like a shotgun. My two mtm 3/2 sacks from O’Connell’s still fit though.

  15. Looking forward to the piece on “Store One.” When I was a young lad, alone in the city (1987), I would sometimes just go and walk around the shop, to remind myself that all was right in the world…….
    It reminded me of my Dad too……

  16. Great story and brings me back to when I worked at Baskin’s at Old Orchard, in the very early 1990s, right out of college.

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