I never know which way my journey will take me when I write my column. There have been numerous times when I started to investigate one topic, only to be led to a more fascinating story.
Such is the case that brought me to writing this week about Stuart Shaines.
I started this week’s column intending to write about the evolution of commerce, the constant reshaping of the consumer-business relationship. My intent was to answer the not so simple question as to whether Amazon was bad or good for the free-market. How can I start with a story about Amazon and end up with a story about a defunct men’s clothing store? Simple, Stuart Shaines was more than just a store, it was a person.
The legacy of Stuart Shaines (and his brother Robert, which is another incredible story, for another time) partially explains the dilemma many of us experience, myself included, when it comes to the responsibility we have as consumers of products and services. At some point, each of us should be asking “what is my role as a customer?”
The last suit my father bought was the same suit he wore to my mother’s funeral. My two brothers and I wore identical matching red blazers to our sister’s wedding. My father’s suit and our spiffy red blazers were bought at Stuart Shaines Clothing Store in downtown Portsmouth. If you needed a tuxedo in the 70s and 80s for a wedding or a prom, you likely got it at Stuart Shaines. If memory serves me, I also believe I got my Boy Scout uniforms from Stuart Shaines; if I am wrong I have no doubt a reader will tell me it was Hudson’s, another great clothing store in downtown Portsmouth (and the source of an awesome Christmas story, again, for another time).
At its zenith, Stuart Shaines had nine stores throughout the region, but I only shopped at the Portsmouth location, and every time Stuart Shaines himself waited on me. My father knew he was going to spend a “little bit more money,” but he also knew he was going to get a quality product, and that Stuart Shaines was “as honest as the day is long.” Additionally, Mr. Shaines was a great guy. I don’t recall a time in which he didn’t have a huge smile on his face, and every time he treated me as his most important client. It did not matter whether I was 8 years old or 42 years old (my last suit from Stuart Shaines), Mr. Shaines referred to me as “sir or young man,” and asked me, not my father, how the clothes “felt.” My father’s relationship with those he did business with helped shape me as the customer I am today.
We were a family of limited means, and my father hated wearing suits. He could have easily brought us to Montgomery Ward (long gone), Sears (struggling), or the mega men’s clothing store, Anderson Little (now relegated to online and offering one product). But he didn’t, because my father taught me something I still practice today, you give your money to people you trust and respect. My father’s farm boy sense of loyalty was simple; yes, commerce was about the exchange of money for goods and services, but it was also about relationships.
My father could not pay in full for those three red blazers. He was partially employed, only a few years removed from military service, money was tight (that is a nice way of saying we had more month at the end of the money). Stuart Shaines, an Air Force veteran like my father, extended my father a courtesy. I do not know what the final arrangement was, but we wore those jackets to my sister’s wedding, and every time we walked into Stuart Shaines, Mr. Shaines welcomed my father with a handshake and a smile.
I heard it once said that “sometimes the smallest gestures mean the most.” It may have seemed like a small gesture on Mr. Shaines’ part, but it meant a lot to my family.
Yes, I buy products online and I shop at Amazon. However, as consumers we are obligated to find a balance, to spend our money wisely. It can be cheaper and more convenient to shop online, but think about what is sacrificed the further we get from a relationship-based commerce model? There is enough money to go around, and shopping locally has an almost immediate impact in our communities.
So, what I am trying say? I guess that commerce evolves with time and technology. We don’t have to like it, and it is completely appropriate to long for the days when we had such valued and trusted merchants in our community like Stuart Shaines, Hudson’s, Pic-n-Pay, Cliff’s Shoe Store, Gallagher’s, and so many more now gone. It also reminds us that as consumers we have the power to bend the commerce model to our will as well.
Sadly, the Stuart Shaines store is gone. However, there are still numerous other small business in our community just as valuable and trusted. I now buy my suits and rent my tuxedos from Tuxedos and Suits with Style, purchase my shoes at Red’s Shoe Barn, have my car serviced at Country Tire and Service, buy my cheese at Calef’s, get my soup at What A Crock, grab my bakery goods at Stonehouse Bakery, or pick my produce at Tendercrop Farms, when I am able. Like many of you, I choose to do commerce with these businesses for the same reasons I shopped at Stuart Shaines. Trust, respect and quality.
Our communities are better places when we have a thriving, locally based economy. These small businesses support our civic ventures, arts, youth programs, help those struggling with addiction and hunger, and yes, at times make sure three young men have red blazers to wear to their sister’s wedding. Just something to ponder the next time you get ready to click “Add to Cart.”