The men’s clothing store Isaac’s is a relic from an earlier time in downtown Raleigh, when the city’s center was still a shopping destination and mom-and-pop stores catered to the needs of the middle class.
Most of the other stores that were here when Shalom Rokach started running Isaac’s 29 years ago are gone, and Rokach says it’s time for him to go, too. After this holiday season, Rokach will pack up his wide assortment of caps, fedoras, three-piece suits and distinctive shoes and move Isaac’s to a spot on Capital Boulevard just outside the Beltline.
It’s no coincidence that Rokach is leaving just as downtown is going through a renaissance. He doesn’t own the 94-year-old two-story building where Isaac’s has been on Wilmington Street since 1985, and developers plan to tear it down in a year or two, Rokach said.
“I don’t have the slightest idea what they are going to put here,” he said. “Offices, maybe.”
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Even if he could stay, Rokach isn’t sure there’s a place for a business like his downtown. For little more than a decade, the enterprises that once lined Wilmington and nearby streets have been forced from their buildings for a new downtown of upscale bars, restaurants and boutiques.
“The mom-and-pop businesses don’t really benefit from that,” Rokach said.
Rokach said even though the store has a rock-solid clientele, it suffers from another byproduct of a successful downtown: weekend events that close many of the streets in the district, making parking difficult.
“They do events every Saturday,” he said. “A lot of events. They close the streets, and it’s hard for the customers to come. All the barbershops here – they’ve all seen better days.”
Isaac’s takes its name from Isaac Lazar, who opened the store in 1980 on East Martin Street.
Lazar, who earned degrees in business and textile technology in 1970 from N.C. State University, started a clothing line that would appeal to middle-aged African-American men “because they make wonderful customers,” he said last week.
“They are very honest, and they like good clothes,” he said.
Lazar initially called his shop “The Hustler,” inspired by the blaxploitation movie era that featured flamboyant urban designer wear by the likes of Bill The Hatter, Eleganza! and Joe Sugar’s. Lazar, whose cousin now runs Joe Sugar’s in St. Paul, said a year or two passed before he changed the name to “Isaac’s.”
“ ‘The Hustler’ was good at the time,” he said. “But those days were over, with the pimps and the hustlers.”
Lazar moved the store to Wilmington Street and brought on his boyhood friend Rokach, who moved from Israel. After helping get his friend set up, Lazar moved to Wilmington, where he had been operating another Issac’s store since he graduated from college.
Quality suits a specialty
Rokach says his biggest sellers have always been quality suits. In the 1980s, it was suits that had that “Miami Vice” look. In the 1990s, it was leather jackets and Pelle Pelle jeans.
“Now it’s more conservative suits. Also, linen in the summer,” he said. “The last four or five years it’s been hats because the rappers and all of Hollywood started wearing hats.”
Herbert Everett, 57, of Raleigh walked into the store wearing a ratty N.C. State baseball cap, a bowling jacket and faded blue sweat pants and told Rokach he was looking for a couple of shirts and pants.
Rokach offered Everett an olive green pair of trousers, then held up a matching, button-down olive green and gray plaid shirt by Montique International.
“ This,” Rokach told Everett, “will fit you to a T!”
Everett was convinced and also bought a pair of brown corduroy trousers and matching sweater. Rokach knocked about $20 each off the price of each outfit and promised to do the alterations on the trousers for free.
Everett said he didn’t have time to go to a mall to look for something that would help him stand out from the crowd.
“I’ve bought from here before,” he said. “I got a birthday party to go to, and I didn’t want to wear any of that.”
Rokach waxed philosophical after Everett left the store.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” he said. “That man spent $200 just like that. Another guy looking like a million dollars will walk in here and take you through the wringer.”
For years, Rokach said his customer base was 90 percent black and 10 percent white. Now it’s 70 percent black and 30 percent white.
Despite the dramatic change in business and clientele in downtown Raleigh, Rokach continues to cater to African-American men.
“I don’t sell khaki pants and stuff like that,” he said. “I see guys from Red Hat having lunch downtown in the summertime, and they’re coming with flip-flops. It’s a different lifestyle.”