The Last Great Clothing Store
Open since 1938, Boyds fights back against e-commerce and the rise of the Supreme hoodie, with extra-personal service and fancy new designer labels.
PHILADELPHIA — In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s here, as in many big cities, there were dozens of independent men’s clothing stores selling tailored suits, sport coats, dress shirts and “furnishings” (socks, ties, pocket squares) to dapper professionals. Among these were the Arrow Store, Morevilles, Diamonds, Irving’s and Jacob Reed’s Sons. Today, professionals no longer need be dapper, and only one store from that period remains in business: Boyds. Like the Liberty Bell and the stone Rocky Steps, Boyds is a local landmark, and one equally impervious to the shifting seasons.
For 80 years, the family-owned business has outfitted lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians and famous athletes, with all-American brands like Hickey-Freeman, groovy European labels like Pierre Cardin and Tiger of Sweden and lately high-end Italian suiting and sportswear from Brioni, Isaia and Brunello Cucinelli.
When the former basketball star Julius Erving flew into the city for a visit from the Bahamas during the January cold snap and found himself in need of warmer clothes, he called Boyds, as he has since back when he was Dr. J., slamming dunks for the 76ers.
“Boyds was the place to shop,” said Mr. Erving, who all these years later still deals with the same salesman, Bill Bolling. “They always had somebody who would make sure everything was just so: sleeve length, cuff length. They know what you like.”
Little about the store has changed, though the address has: the longtime Market Street location was redeveloped by the city to build a convention center in 1990, and since then, Boyds has been housed in a grand, five-story limestone building, 1818 Chestnut Street, near Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphians, or a certain affluent segment of them, regard Boyds as a destination, a place to drive to on a Saturday from their homes on the Main Line. The store is where a young man goes to buy his wedding suit, and returns 30 years later, grayer, wealthier, thicker in the middle, this time bringing his son to buy his wedding suit.
Such tradition and continuity across generations was once commonplace in retail apparel. But in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time.
Dolce by Dumbwaiter
There is a parking lot for customers across from the store, in a Center City location that a developer would pay millions to build atop. There is a fifth-floor workshop with 39 full-time tailors and pressers who do free alterations, sending finished garments down to the sales floors in a dumbwaiter.
There are salespeople, several in fact, who have worked at Boyds since wide lapels were in style. Impeccably dressed and coifed, they stand beside counters and clothing racks, at the ready to give solicitous service to the next person who steps off the elevator. Mr. Bolling, a trim, soft-spoken man of 60, maintains for his best clients a notebook, into which he records the details of their every purchase and tucks a fabric swatch.
“When a gentleman is buying four, five garments a season, it’s easy to get something too similar,” Mr. Bolling said. The notebook preserves “a perfect history. It’s giving their wardrobe maximum attention.”
Out-of-towners who happen into this retail anachronism tend to react first with astonishment, followed by a sigh of pleasure.