NEWS- Home again: Young Men's Shop comes back downtown

Eleven years after heading for suburbia, the Young Men's Shop has quietly returned to its original name and to its former stomping grounds on the Downtown Mall.

A venerable gentleman's emporium, the Shop– under owner Harry Marshall– has moved into a building most recently housing the Mole Hole in an attempt to revive slumping sales that resulted from the shop's 1997 leap to Seminole Square shopping center.

"We moved from the Downtown Mall because it couldn't sustain the volume we were doing," Marshall says. "Then one year ago, we decided to move back because we didn't need that extra space anymore."

The Young Men's Shop has been a Charlottesville staple for over 80 years. It opened on Main Street (now the Downtown Mall) in 1927, where the shop catered to a clientele of dapper men, "well-known in Charlottesville for [their] attire," according to Marshall.

As the years passed, the clientele aged, and just four years ago, the store made another monumental move with a name change, to YMS Clothiers Ltd.

"We originally changed it because people would come in thinking ‘young men' meant little boys," Marshall explains. "But last summer, the Daily Progress had their Reader's Choice awards, and the ‘Young Men's Shop' won– not YMS Clothiers. The move was the perfect time to go back to the original name."

In a similar effort to regain younger customers, Marshall points to his recent foray into the youth-driven world of online shopping with an e-commerce website.

"Successful small retailers are versatile," says Pam Fitzgerald, a marketing consultant at the Ivy Group. "They make quick adjustments to market conditions."

Charlottesville's own market changes make occasionally victims of small retailers, evidenced by downtown's ever-changing storefronts and occasionally empty buildings.

"Web is the future of retail," says Marshall. "I'm not necessarily sure I'm ready for it– I'm not going to close down the store– but unfortunately, that might be what it one day comes to. It's harder and harder for a small retailer."

Marshall believes his haberdashery's return to Downtown Mall, which occurred March 3, will help attract Charlottesville's businessmen, tourists, and University students. However, for at least one customer, location takes a back seat to the store itself.

"Although I like the Downtown Mall better," says long-time customer and Waynesboro retiree Mitch Lawrence, "I continued going to the Seminole Square location because I like the product, the people, and the service. The name change didn't bother me– I'll continue coming as long as I live."

One deal-breaker for some shoppers is parking, a fundamental issue for the Downtown Mall, says retail expert Fitzgerald. "Nothing is more convenient to shoppers than parking," she says. "Seminole Square is a very successful shopping center, and while it may not be right for Harry, it is right for other businesses."

One retailer that made that move and never returned is Downtown Athletic, which opened its doors on Main Street in 1946 and spent 50 years downtown– until 1995 when redevelopment made business difficult. 

"When the ice park was built, it took away access for our deliveries and pick-ups," says Downtown Athletic owner Ilma Dean. "We were more or less forced to move because we lacked vehicular access," says Dean, adding that the change proved to be a "good move" for her team-centric customer base.

The revamped, relocated YMS has a cozy, handcrafted feel, with every available space housing neat rows of multi-colored, heavily patterned ties, old-school suspenders and bow ties, and a wide range of seersucker suits. In an attempt to attract a younger crowd of up-and-coming gents, Vineyard Vines and Lacoste shirts are scattered near the front while an image of Thomas Jefferson sternly watches over the issues of Gentlemen's Quarterly and Golf Digest customers can peruse while waiting for their adjusted inseams and waistbands.

In a town where wealthy, tradition-minded retirees, CEOs, and University-related residents have recently bolstered development, the long-standing Young Men's Shop may serve as a reminder that Charlottesville, as Marshall contends, may harbor a "small, conservative, traditional town" at its core.

"Most people felt we shouldn't have changed the name and shouldn't have left the Downtown Mall," says Marshall says. "I disagree. We left when we should have, but maybe we should have moved back sooner."