J.C. Harris closing will mark end of 100-year tradition on Clematis Street


Bobby Harris leans on the old wooden counter next to the cash register and sighs.

The dark wood under his elbows gleams, polished by four generations of Harris men since the days customers arrived at the downtown West Palm Beach shop in horse-drawn buggies and shirts came with detachable collars.

“I feel terrible that it’s on me after 100 years,” he says.

He turns away to straighten a short stack of slacks. The piles of classic Corbin chinos used to reach his chest. Now only seven or eight pairs in each size remain on the vintage display table.

They’re 60 percent off, like everything else left in the store.

Bobby is 38. He started working at his family’s store soon after high school.

Until about five years ago, he expected to spend his adult life as the fourth generation of Harris haberdashers: nattily-dressed men with tape measures around their necks and an uncanny ability to guess customers’ shoe sizes.

But that was before the rise of internet shopping; before polo shirts became acceptable business attire; before downtown West Palm Beach parking became expensive; before the recession.

“Nobody spends money when they’re scared,” said Bobby.

He hung on just long enough for the store to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

On June 1, he’ll lock the doors of J.C. Harris Co. for the last time, more than century after his great-grandfather established his first shop in what was then the Florida frontier.

A family tradition

In 1903, West Palm Beach was still part of Dade County, Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Wright Brothers made their first flight from Kitty Hawk.

The same year, James Calvin Harris opened a dry goods store with a partner on Datura Street called Harris & Epps.

Ten years later, he moved to Clematis Street, where he started a men’s clothing shop using his own name.

A pioneering businessman, J.C. Harris was also an early public servant, who became the first superintendent of public instruction after Palm Beach County was established in 1909.

For a century, J.C. Harris was West Palm Beach shorthand for traditional men’s clothes. Call it preppy or conservative, the look included striped rep ties, Bass Weejun loafers, or more formal wing-tips with a suit, Gant shirts and Leather Man belts dotted with golf clubs, fish or ducks.

Let other merchants blow in the fickle winds of fashion. The Harrises’ refusal to change was the secret of their success.

In the 1920s, newfangled zippers were likely viewed with suspicion.

Likewise, if you wanted a zoot suit in the 1940s or a Nehru jacket in the 1960s, you went elsewhere.

“We never followed trends,” said Bobby. “When three-button suits were big, ours always stayed the same: a two-button jacket with a center vent.”

Customers have come here for the reassurance tradition offers, as well as clothes made of quality fabrics and a staff that remembers your name and your suit size, even if you don’t.

In the shoe section, Sam Marshall is looking for what he thinks may be his 51st pair of the same shoes. A partner in a law firm on the same block, Marshall has been shopping at J.C. Harris since the early 1980s.

“I must have bought 50 pairs of these Stacy Adams “Madison” loafers here,” he said, waiting in line. “I get them in brown and black.”

For 40 years, Palm Beach real estate agent Jim Clarke has shopped here. He’s got a wardrobe of clothes with the J.C. Harris custom label, a wind-blown palm tree.

“There’s no other place like this,” says Clarke, picking out a pair of khaki pants. “It’s the only traditional prep shop left.”

Bobby’s father, Bob, ran the shop until he retired and Bobby took over. There have been as many as five Harrises at a time working in the family business. A cousin, Jim, runs the Harris school uniform shop on Blue Heron Boulevard.

(The Harrises are as conservative with family names as they are with attire. At one time, three Robert Harrises worked at the shop, necessitating nicknames: Bobby; Tow, for Bob, who was tow-headed as a child; and Robert Calvin, an uncle known as R.C.)

Bob still helps out a few hours a week, though. On a recent morning, he was hand-sewing a belt loop in slacks after letting out the waist.

“Jim, we’re a dying breed,” he tells Clarke. “In the last 30 years, 80 percent of independent men’s shops have gone out of business.”

Still limber and slim at 70, he bends over and pins Clarke’s new pants. At J.C. Harris, pants and jackets have always been precisely tailored to the man who wears them.

“Straight bottom or cuffs? I’ve been doing mostly straight bottoms recently,” advised Bob.

When other downtown shops fled to the newly-opened Palm Beach Mall in the 1960s, the Harrises stubbornly stayed put. Nor did the Harrises budge when CityPlace opened in 2000.

“If we moved, our rent would triple and we’d have had to work until 9 or 10 at night and on Sundays,” said Bob.

‘Paid parking’ killed us

Other than slacks with the perfect break, the family has long been obsessed with fishing and tennis.

Bob’s father was a tennis star who won the French Open in 1939. His late brother, Bill, was a former National Junior Tennis Champion. At one point, they sold tennis rackets in the shop.

For a while, the Clematis Street revival of the 1990s was a boon. Banana Republic, Gap and Loft opened downtown, bringing in customers for the entire street.

“But paid parking killed them all,” said Bobby. “I can’t tell you how many times customers would come in after getting a ticket, saying, ‘I’m never coming back down here if this is what happens.’”

The paid parking lots and meters stayed even after the mass market retailers moved to CityPlace.

Dark, wood-paneled J. C. Harris is the antithesis of a lively mall retailer. There’s no music playing. It’s hushed interior smells of leather and shoe polish. For more than 80 years, suits, tuxedos and navy blue sportcoats have hung from the same antique display racks.

“We got this furniture from a store that went out of business in 1929,” said Bobby.

Glass-fronted drawers wear hand-printed signs. “Fancy cummerbund sets and boutonnieres,” reads one, a reminder of the thousands of men J.C. Harris dressed for proms and weddings.

Russell Kelley figures he started wearing J.C. Harris clothes sometime in the 1960s.

“You can find some of the same reliable classics now that I wore then,” said the Palm Beach resident, who stopped by the day before leaving for France. He thumbed through cotton poplin pants and the English-made Byford socks.

Bobby is the shop’s main tailor, who hems pants and jackets on a Singer sewing machine so old — at least 80 years, he estimates — that most of the paint has worn away.

Although he once remade his cousin’s wife’s wedding dress, he prefers sticking to men’s tailoring.

“Women’s clothes have far too much detail work,” he said.

When the last pair of Sperry Topsiders, stretchy Sportif shorts and F.A. MacCluer golf shirts are gone, Bobby is leaving his hometown and heading to his wife’s, who comes from Oxford, England.

He may try to get a job there, where he’s likely to be the lone American tailor in the bespoke English suit trade.

But he figures the lessons he learned from his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins will help him in almost any job.

“I learned how to talk to people, that’s the biggest thing, as well as the importance of giving everybody personal attention. That’s what’s kept the place going all these years,” he said.

But it’s hard to be the last Harris standing.

“It’s a tough thing to be the one it goes out on,” he said.


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