Don’t look for “haberdashers” in the yellow pages, because it’s not there. The term, once used to describe a men’s clothing store, went by the wayside decades ago.
Businesses today would not be able to pull off using the iconic word on their storefront signage.
That is, unless you’re Mills Bros. of downtown Wenatchee.
Mills Bros., 10 S. Wenatchee Ave., is an astounding 107 years old. And, according to the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, it’s the oldest family business to occupy the same location in Wenatchee history. Its longevity spans three generations of the Mills family, starting with brothers Sam and Harvey Mills in 1906, and may be attributed to its mission of providing quality clothing products and unparalleled customer service.
Sam Mills III, who owns the popular upscale clothing store with his wife, Vickie, uses the term haberdashers with pride.
“ ‘Haberdashers’ conveys a sense of history and longevity,” he said.
It’s not unusual for a business that has been an anchor in a community for well over a century to have customers for life.
“I have been shopping at Mills Bros. for over 50 years and have always experienced A-plus service,” said Wenatchee resident Mike Walker. “Mills Bros. is an institution in Wenatchee, and we’re blessed as a city to have them.”
And Walker is not alone.
“The customers we have are very loyal, and we try to serve them to the best of our ability,” Sam said. “As a specialty store, we have a pretty small niche.”
Mills Bros. (millsbrosmenswear.com) features high-end clothing manufacturers such as Tommy Bahama, Pendleton, Cutter and Buck, S.Cohen, Ballin and Hart Schaffner & Marx. Shoe lines include Dansko, ecco, Florsheim and Johnston & Murphy. It also carries a variety of men’s accessories, such as grooming systems and colognes. The business has eight employees, features free gift wrapping and serves customers throughout Central Washington.
But selling upscale clothing and accessories isn’t all the business does. Mills Bros. started renting tuxedos in the late 1970s, and today its tuxedo rental department accounts for a quarter of its business.
“We deal exclusively with Tuxedo Warehouse Inc., in Roseburg, Oregon,” Vickie said. “They provide consistent quality and adhere to the same high standard we do. We get our orders in two days, and the contents are always perfect. They’re not the least expensive company to work with, but they’re the nicest.”
And if a customer’s life throws a curve ball or procrastination reigns, no problem. Mills Bros. has you covered.
“We do keep our basic model of in-house black tuxedos on hand for last-minute scenarios,” Sam said.
Keeping a business viable from decade to decade and being able to survive economic highs and lows — including the Great Depression — requires effective business management.
Vickie’s experience is in finance, so she handles all the financial aspects of Mills Bros.
“We’ve been in this business long enough to know the economic good times and bad times don’t last forever,” Vickie said. “It’s important to plan ahead to weather the tough times.”
It’s also important for the longevity of a clothing business to be able to read social and fashion trends, and react accordingly.
“Over the years we have changed with the times,” Sam said. “We’ve gone from providing railroad overalls to an entire wall devoted to fashionable men’s hats, and from a complete line of Boy Scout uniforms and accessories to a jeans shop. Staying current with local and national men’s fashion trends is important to us.”
Providing what customers want must have been important to Sam’s grandfather, too.
Sam Sr. and Harvey Mills were in their late teens and early twenties, respectively, when they boarded the train in Roslyn in early 1906 in search of their dream of opening their own business. The brothers traveled to various locales in Eastern Washington searching for the right opportunity, and found it in Wenatchee in the form of a haberdashery, which was for sale on the young city’s main street. Shortly after returning to Roslyn, the brothers resigned their jobs in the Northwest Improvement Company store (the same hardware store featured in the television series “Northern Exposure”) and headed to Wenatchee to buy the clothing store. Unbeknownst to them, the brothers started a family dynasty. Mills Bros. haberdashery opened its doors Sept. 10, 1906.
The brothers ran the store until the mid-1950s before turning it over to the second generation of Mills Bros. owners — Sam’s son, Sam Jr., and Harvey’s son, Jim.
“When I started shopping at Mills Bros., Sam’s father, Sam Jr., and uncle, Jim, were working at the store,” Walker said. “It was the place in town to buy Levi corduroys and Pendleton wool shirts. Today, Mills Bros. is the place to buy suits, sportswear and Tommy Bahama clothing. I have taken my grandchildren to Mills Bros. for suits, and they always seem to have the right suit for them.”
Sam Mills III is a Wenatchee native, graduating in 1966 from Wenatchee High School. He took a few business classes, earning a liberal arts degree from Seattle University. He returned to Wenatchee in 1971 and began working full time at the family store.
Vickie’s mother, Verna O’Dell, began working at Mills Bros. at the age of 18. When Vickie was the same age, and getting ready to graduate from high school, Verna took her daughter to Mills Bros. to find a gift for Father’s Day. Jim Mills asked Vickie if she had a summer job lined up yet, and when she learned the store had a young men’s shop in the basement, she accepted the offer.
It didn’t take long for Cupid’s arrows to fly, and Vickie became Sam’s bride in 1974. Sam Jr. and Jim retired nine years later and turned the reins of the family business over to Sam III.
Just as it does with customers, Mills Bros. has a history of hanging on to its employees.
“We’ve been blessed over the years with loyal lifelong customers and good long-term employees,” Sam said.
But like most brick-and-mortar stores, business at Mills Bros. has been adversely affected by the dawning of sales on the Internet. Customers like Jim Haglund of East Wenatchee understand the negative impact Internet sales can have on a local business, and he acts accordingly.
“It’s important to me to shop locally,” said Haglund, who has been a customer of Mills Bros. for more than 40 years. “Mills Bros. hires local people, supports dozens of local events, organizations and activities, pays local property and sales taxes, buys local media and has been a very important part of the Wenatchee Valley community for over 100 years.”
The Internet sales issue aside, Sam and Vickie Mills are grateful for the support from the community over the years; they look forward to maintaining a positive presence in downtown Wenatchee for years to come.
“We believe in supporting the community, because it has been really good to us over the years,” Sam said. “We appreciate their support.”
And Sam Sr. would appreciate that the word “Haberdashers” remains on his storefront.