Nathan’s Men’s Store owner, Harris Estroff, has announced his retirement after 78 years in business.
Located in downtown Lakeland, Nathan’s will begin the process of closing up shop with an upcoming Retirement Sale starting Thursday at 9:30 a.m. – March 11.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LAKELANDER BUSINESS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN AUSTIN
Harris Estroff tells us the story of one of Lakeland’s oldest — and best dressed — businesses
The Lakelander: Please tell us about the history of Nathan’s Men’s Store.
Harris Estroff: My dad, Nathan Estroff, came to Lakeland from Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1930s. His brother Sam had settled in Lakeland some years before that, opening the Empire Store on Kentucky Avenue near the railroad tracks. The Empire was more of a ladies’ shop. My dad decided in the early ’40s to start his own shop exclusively for men which led ultimately to the birth of Nathan’s — for Dad and lad — in 1942 at 121 East Main Street.
My mother, Mildred, had a background in a retail store, having been raised in her family’s dry-goods business in Ybor City. My parents were both crackerjack salespeople and worked together for several years to build a solid reputation. My mom later opened and operated The New Fashion Shop in Plant City for 35 years.
I was brought up in the business but did not expect to return to Lakeland after I moved away. Eventually, however, I did return and began to manage the store in 1974. Over the years, Dad taught me the finer points of the business — buying, selling, personnel, customer service, inventory control. I learned to love the business. He passed away in 1995 at 87. We had worked together for about 22 years. Because of his good health, he had worked almost until the day he died.
Nathan’s was originally beside J.C. Penny’s and The Diana Shop. These stores, along with Maas Brothers, either closed or moved around downtown over the years before ultimately being drawn to Lakeland Square Mall, leaving Nathan’s as the sole retailer of fine menswear downtown. In the early 1960s, that entire block was demolished to become what is now the Wells Fargo parking lot. In 1962, the store moved to its current location at 221 East Main Street, except for about six months between Easter and Thanksgiving of 1992 when we remodeled the store and operated temporarily from just a few storefronts away. The Buller Shoe store had originally been on the corner, so we tore down the wall to make it the bigger store you see today.
The building was owned by a lawyer named Tom Bryant who had his office upstairs. In the mid- to late-1980s, a large real estate company began to buy up properties in downtown Lakeland. My father and Mr. Bryant had originally transacted on little more than a handshake, and we worried that the real estate company might buy our building from Mr. Bryant and we’d risk losing our location. So, in 1988, I bought the building.
Today we are an all-purpose store for fine menswear — young and old, thrifty and affluent. We’ve also been a Boy Scout uniform distributor for nearly 70 years, and we have a large tuxedo rental business.
TL: What do you think accounts for the longevity, 74 years, of the business?
HE: I would say the first thing is strong staff members. Nathan’s has a loyal, honest staff that is dedicated to trying hard to please our clients with quality merchandise at fair prices. We also have a talented, expert tailor who has been with us a long time. In fact, a lot of business is generated because of the efficient tailoring Nathan’s offers. Secondly, we strive to make each client feel at home. We have a pleasant atmosphere and no-pressure salesmanship. Next, we carry well-known, high-quality brands that clients won’t find anywhere else. Finally, we have the ability to listen to our clients’ suggestions and make changes when necessary. If we are out of a size or item our client wants, we try hard to get it for him.
TL: How do you adapt to changing trends and tastes quickly?
HE: As I mentioned, we listen to client requests. When the slim-fit suit craze began about two years ago, we were slow to catch on, but when we got multiple requests, we bought into it, and now the fitted, slim, skinny suits occupy a large section of selling space. I go to men’s clothing shows, talk to fellow retailers, read men’s fashion magazines, and visit knowledgeable sales reps who often help me to anticipate trends.
TL: How do you attract different age groups into the store?
HE: We try to anticipate early trends and provide what customers in different age groups want to buy. For instance, I first heard about Southern Tide (a young men’s sportswear line that even older men like and buy) from a salesman who knew it was becoming popular. I had been trying to attract college-age customers, and it has been a homerun for Nathan’s. We are the only store carrying it in Lakeland, and we have expanded with its growth each season. Tommy Bahama, Tori Richard, Hook & Tackle, and SAXX underwear also have a strong following with us. Our young men’s suit lines include DKNY, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, and Austin Reed. We still feature traditional lines like Hart Schaffner Marx, Ralph Lauren, Palm Beach, Enro, and Stetson.
TL: What’s the best thing about running a small business in Lakeland?
HE: Although we are by no means perfect, I hear positive comments almost daily from regular clients, new customers who have never been in a full-service traditional men’s store like mine, and even competitors. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment and pride in what I have been doing for the last 40 years or so. It gives my daily life a strong feeling of purpose.
TL: What’s the most challenging thing?
HE: Independent retailers like me have to realize that some think of us as dinosaurs. While we are still kicking, the daily challenges are many — competition from internet sales is growing, and the big box stores are tough competitors, too. It’s difficult to find good staff members. I find it’s harder to retain the personal relationships with clients and vendors today. Special orders can be a challenge, too; many vendors have minimum orders that are cost-prohibitive. But I’m getting better at social media and online marketing. It’s funny; you used to put an ad in the paper and people would respond to it, but that doesn’t always work anymore. Now I have to know about clouds and Instagram and who knows what’s next!
TL: Any final thoughts?
HE: I am certainly not ready to retire, but I’m not getting any younger. In the not-too-distant future I should create some sort of exit plan. Many people have asked me how downtown could manage without Nathan’s. I think downtown might manage just fine, but I’m not sure that I would. So I’m not ready to ride into the sunset yet. But, generally, I know there will always be good days and bad days, rainy days and sunny days. Many of the good days are rainy days and often the bad days are full of sunshine. Every day is different. That’s what makes being a haberdasher an unpredictable challenge. But it has been good to me, so I’ll turn the page and look forward to tomorrow, rain or shine.