Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: For George Angelopolous, clothing business is the right fit
"When you own your own business, that's part of the deal," he said one morning last week in the basement of his 675 Elm St. store. "But if you really enjoy something, when you come to the store, it's not work. It's just enjoyment."
At 87, Angelopoulos has cut down that enjoyment to about 40 hours a week. But he still loves to help customers get fitted for suits by such brands as Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Joseph Abboud, Michael Kors and Hart Schaffner & Marx.
"Everything I do is with people. You come in and shake hands," he said. "I don't spend a lot of time at the office. I'm in the people business. That's what it's all about."
That may be why George's Apparel remains a viable retail business in an era when independent clothing stores have all but disappeared, giving way to chain specialty shops and mall department stores. Walk into the shop and you'll find a folksy environment, with salespeople attending to customers with only one object in mind: getting the right suit with the right fit.
To really appreciate the store's distinction and its old-school ways, you need to visit the bowels of the business downstairs, where several seamstresses sit in front of sewing machines doing alterations while another worker operates a steam presser. Dozens of suits hang on racks in the hallway, with numbered paper tags connecting the garments with the owners who have left them there to be taken in or let out.
At one time, Angelopoulos employed as many as a dozen seamstresses and two custom pressers, but the crew he has now seemed plenty busy one recent morning while some of the four full-time and three part-time salespeople worked upstairs.
"As a store, we give service. That's our niche," said Angelopolous, who bought the store in 1988. "People come in the store, and we know our customers. It's all repeat business."
The World War II veteran opened his first clothing business in Dover in 1955 and operated it for 15 years before moving to Manchester. He had intended to travel, having spent several years working as a civilian manager in Europe in his twenties for the Army & Navy Exchange Service, but he remained in New Hampshire to care for his ailing mother. Before buying the store that would become his namesake, he worked for Jim's Oxford Shop and operated a clothing store on Maple Street. When the owner of the Elm Street store wanted to retire, he invited Angelopoulos to buy it.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, the store sold 8,000 to 9,000 suits a year. He went to all these factories in New York," Angelopoulos said. "He bought them for $30 or $40, and he sold them for $99, $119, free alterations. He had people from various corporations coming in. People back then dressed."
These days, George's Apparel offers a two for $299 suit special, with free alterations for life, and has a fast-growing tuxedo rental business. While the store has remained profitable during the recession - business was up year over last Angelopolous says - changing attitudes about professional attire has made business more challenging.
"The retail business has changed so much over the past 10 years. People aren't dressing up as much as they used to, and our sources of buying merchandise has decreased a great deal," he says. "I'm sorry to say I have to buy overseas. I'd rather have factories in this country. They can't compare as far as wages. There aren't too many business suits made in this country."
Angelopolous, a widower who has four stepchildren and nine grandchildren through them, likes to spend his free time at the beach and visiting family. His stepson, James Richards, works part time at the store. He credits longtime general manager Bernie Marchowsky for keeping the business humming and helping to generate sales and publicity by making presentations to schools and civic groups about dressing for success."
"I can leave here and not have to worry about anything," Angelopolous said.
Marchowsky, who began working at George's Apparel in 1994 and returned five years ago after a five-year absence, has become the public face of the company. What began as an impromptu talk to the Kiwanis Club at the Puritan's Back Room nearly 20 years ago has evolved into frequent speaking gigs that can range from a 20-minute breakfast talk to a two-hour fashion show.
The former road salesman for clothing companies enjoys spending time outside the store, offering tips to students and returning military workers on how to dress for job interviews. Instead of waiting for customers to come to them, why not go find the customers instead?
"It's so challenging now for us with the competition, not having the advertising budgets that these stores have," said Marchowsky, 70. "But we seem to be competing fairly well, despite all those difficulties that face us. It's mostly because of the service and word of mouth."
Marchowksy jokes that he'd like to find his boss a 40-year-old girlfriend and admires his tenacity: "I hope when I'm 87 years old, I have half the vigor that he has."
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Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.