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The Range

Johnston's Clothiers hangs it up after being in business for over a century

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Hugo Phan
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KMUW

A longtime Wichita clothing store hangs ‘em up.

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Courtesy photos
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J.V. Johnston and his wife, Veronica. The Johnston family ran Johnston’s Clothiers for nearly 60 years.

After more than 100 years in business, Johnston's Clothiers closed this month.

The fashionable men's clothing store opened in 1914 in downtown Wichita, near Douglas and Market.

The Johnston family had run the store since 1965 and developed a loyal following (that includes me, a customer for nearly 30 years.)

But the growing impact of the internet on retail sales and a changing standard for business attire — think Casual Friday — was too much to overcome.

Jerry Johnston didn't realize what poor shape it was in until after he scraped together $17,000 dollars in 1965 to buy what was then McVicar's Menswear.

"So he mortgaged his house. He borrowed money from his dad, his father-in-law and from a friend, and he bought the store," said J.V. Johnston, Jerry's oldest son and the store's last owner.

"And he said two weeks later he had the 'Oh, no' moment, and he realized that he had old inventory, just a very small customer base left, and Henry's was a dominant player at that time."

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Jerry Johnston, left, bought what would become Johnston’s Clothiers in 1965 and ran it for 30 years. He also was a big Wichita State basketball fan. He’s pictured with former Shocker great Fred Van Vleet.

Johnston says his dad overcame those early challenges through superior customer service and hard work, which included JV at an early age.

"When I was about seven or eight years old, he had me clean the bathrooms," Johnston said. "You have to realize that the bathroom was old, dirty and grungy. So it was impossible to get it clean.

"And I'd clean it, and he'd come in and say, 'No, you need to clean it again.' And so I cleaned it again."

J.V. Johnston's mother also worked in the store … briefly.

"She did alterations when they first got started for about two weeks," he said. "And I guess it didn't go well between the two of them. My mom was a strong personality."

The store moved from Boulevard Plaza to South Hillside in 1985 and was renamed Johnston's for Men. J.V. and longtime store employee Kevin Edmundson bought the store from Jerry Johnston in 1995.

Even though the store changed hands, its reputation for great customer service never diminished.

Johnston likes telling the story of a man in Salina who bought a new suit for his daughter's wedding. But he forgot to pick it up, and his wife called the store in a panic hours before the wedding.

"So we literally hopped in the car, threw the bag in the car and … drove to Salina — to the church — and got there 10 minutes before the wedding was supposed to start," Johnston said. "The guy tried his suit on. It fit. Perfect.

"And he was just as happy as could be."

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Johnston's Clothiers closed earlier this month.

In 2005, the store moved to a new business development near K-96 and 21st Street, the first retail project in that area.

"It wasn't too long after that that people realized Amazon was something besides the river," Johnston said.

Muralee Mantrala is a professor of marketing at the University of Kansas School of Business. Although the internet accounts for only about 20% of retail sales, the figure has nearly doubled in less than 10 years.

"I think the real challenge was that this happened fairly quickly," Mantrala said. "And so many traditional retailers and their management found it hard to adjust because for decades they've been doing it in a different way."

About 12,000 retail stores closed in 2019. That's expected to grow to 75,000 by 2026.

Johnston said the store made two attempts at developing an online presence but both were unsuccessful.

The store also took a hit as companies eased back on dress codes, no longer requiring suit coats and ties at the office. The pandemic only accelerated the trend of casual clothing at the office.

"And honestly that's part of the problem," Johnston said. "It's not just the internet.

"Kevin, my former partner, used to joke. He said, 'People don't wear suits anymore, but they have to wear pants.' And with Zoom, they don't even have to wear pants."

Johnston said a handful of people looked into buying the company. But although the company was profitable, it wasn't profitable enough.

So the store held a large going-out-of-business sale and quietly closed its doors last week. But Johnston — also the executive director of Guadalupe Clinic — said a part of the store will live on.

"The 40-some years that I worked there, the relationship I built ... have just really been a treasure to me," Johnston said. "And it's actually allowed me to do my job now, too, because I have all those relationships, and I value all those relationships.

"And then I'm very grateful for the loyalty that so many people gave to our store and to let us serve them. And I'm very thankful for that."