The sign saying that O’Neill’s men’s store in University Place is closing jolted me upon coming out of the movies last month. After 31 years in his own store and a total of 46 years in the “rag trade,” as it was known in New York, John O’Neill is calling it quits at the end of the year. And along with him goes another little piece of what was once old Chapel Hill.
I can’t say I was a major customer there, but I can say that I still (barely) wear the first pair of trousers I bought from John 25 years ago when his store was in Carr Mill Mall. That might have been the first time I paid $100 for a pair of pants, and in those days $100 was a lot of money. But those dark corduroys speckled with subtle blue and green flecks served me well; amortized at $4 a year.
When I asked John, who as he approaches 70, is still vigorous and of course, always well turned out, why – he said wryly , “I think forty-six years is enough, don’t you?” He also looks forward to a vacation in Hawaii then a trip to Ireland, the ancestral home he’s never visited. That, after enduring the tyranny of retail – all these years of six-day weeks and only short weekends away.
While he says he won’t miss the “color of the season” and the ever more casual ways of dressing generally, he will miss the customers, the ability to outfit men in quality clothing and seeing to dressing some of the second generation of his customers as their dads brought them in for that first time. That’s the same way he was brought up; he recollected when his Irish immigrant father took him to Kennedy’s men’s ware on Staten Island in his youth.
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That first brush with haberdashery stuck with him, so years later after the military and while in graduate school in South Carolina, a friend asked him to come work in his clothing store on Christmas and that was IT. A few years later he came to Chapel Hill, began working at Nowell’s clothing, then after 15 years and three sons, he opened his own store. The first shop was in Eastgate about where Trader Joe’s is now, then a move across town to Carr Mill Mall where I first encountered him in a cozy little 1,400 square foot space. When the retail mix at Carr Mill Mall changed, he did too and ended up at what is now University Place, altering to fit the times but always stylish with an inventory that while classic was contemporary and not stuffy.
I can say that the few things I’ve made myself buy – usually, I confess, when he’d hold his semi-annual sales – I still have and enjoy wearing. The green silk shirt with ornate but subtle stitching and coordinated seersucker pants I treated myself to on my 60th birthday are favorites and this year a new pair of blue summer trousers in a shade I’d never seen anywhere else. That Mr. O’Neill has an eye, no question about it, for style that goes beyond any given year’s fashions.
As he notes clothing styles are becoming ever more casual and cheaper; the number of people who want to pay north of $100 for a shirt or $150 for a really good pair of pants diminishes. They’d rather, John notes, buy cheaper stuff that will wear out in a year or two and be replaced instead of taking care of a garment and having it last for years.
Shopping at a store like this is about the service. The few other staff who work there, though relatively young, were trained well. When I hit the summer sale a few months ago, I fantasized that maybe it was time for a new summer sport coat though I rarely wear them. The clerk visually sized me up, took me to the rack and voila – had me exactly at a 44 regular. Not a bad call on someone with arms way too long for his torso while his legs are way too short. Too bad I was not ready to drop the cash needed to acquire a gorgeous, perfectly fitting jacket. I’ll probably regret that next time I play dress up but have only my tired old threads to draw on.
Shopping at O’Neill’s reminded me of the few occasions when my dad splurged on clothing for me and my younger brother at a similar haberdashery on Long Island, a one-man show by the name of Edward Miller. Like John, he had a small intimate store and was used to men coming in with their sons, but unfortunately for me he had in the early ’60s only those horribly scratchy wool trousers that were standard winter wear for the time. Further he unwittingly wounded my pre-teen pride when I overheard him describe me to my father has having “kind of a coca cola shaped” body. I almost didn’t want to go back, but I still own my bar mitzvah tie purchased there.
One friend who’s a bit of a clothes horse bemoans the demise of O’Neill’s as well. He notes, “You know the guy was a good salesman because sometimes I’d go in there just to look and walk out with a few hundred dollars in purchases.” Or remarking on the apparent splurge he’d made on one rather chic cashmere blazer for a special event in New York and noting he was still wearing regularly 15 years later. So it’s like John says, “These good clothes are built for the long run, if you take care of them, they’ll last.’
You can reach Blair Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org