Paul “PJ” Wilmot arrived at The Red Barn on a recent morning dressed head to toe in clothing the owner, Don Rhoda, had picked for him during a prior visit.
Wilmot, president of Wilmorite Corp. and a Red Barn customer since he was 4 years old, had needed some clothing for a business occasion a while back and had asked Rhoda to put together some selections for him.
“This was laid out on the table before I got here,” Wilmot said, referring to his gray plaid jacket, white Eton shirt, Meyer slacks, Robert Talbott tie in shades of brown that picked up a subtle line in the jacket, and a pocket square that both matched the tie and could supply that burst of color needed to complete the outfit on its own if Wilmot decided to go more casual and skip the tie, Rhoda explained.
“He’s got a great outfit, I’m proud to say,” said the 78-year-old Rhoda, who announced this week that he is retiring and closing his business after 55 years.
The closure will be the end of an era for shoppers – particularly those buying fine men’s clothing – who’ve depended on Rhoda’s selection and taste to make them look handsomely put together.
“Don put me in my first blue blazer as a 4-year-old,” Wilmot said, and he’s been shopping there for nearly 39 years since. Before the store closes by year’s end, he said he would return to outfit his sons for a Christmas photo.
The Red Barn’s retirement sale began this week with merchandise priced between 20 and 50 percent off. Red Barn staff members are managing the sale themselves rather than relying on a liquidator.
Rhoda plans to retire, allowing him and his wife of 20 years, Pamela, time so they can take an actual vacation, travel for something other than buying trips, and spend time with a grandchild who is on the way.
Relationships and even multigenerational relationships like the Red Barn has with the Wilmot family have been the key to a successful business that once flourished with three stores in the area. The original was in a red barn (now painted another color) on Monroe Avenue, across the street and a little farther west than its current location in Pittsford Plaza.
A native of the Jamestown area, Rhoda worked with his father in men’s fine clothing in that city before they agreed he should start his own shop in a property that was available in Pittsford. Rhoda used to accompany his father, Edward Rhoda, owner of Edward’s in Jamestown, on buying trips to New York. “Dad tutored me,” Rhoda said.
The Red Barn operated in its first location for 27 years and for a time Rhoda also had a shop at Marketplace Mall and added a young men’s store next door to the Pittsford Red Barn. But styles changed and casual wear overtook formal attire for both business and special occasions. The phenomenon was not unique to the Rochester area, as stores including Barney’s in New York and Louis in Boston have also closed. Rhoda entered a market that had 16 local competitors. Now he’s one of the last men standing.
The Red Barn staff of 20 is now down to three full-time people (including Rhoda, his wife, Pamela Rhoda and their tailor) and some part-timers.
“People don’t get dressed up,” Rhoda said. “I had four, five tables of ties, now I have just one.” To widen the Red Barn’s appeal, he added jeans, boys clothing and a coffee bar and television set so men can watch sports while they wait for clothing to be fitted.
Pam Rhoda said things changed when some of Rochester’s larger companies started struggling and the stream of executives began to dwindle. No longer do droves of Kodak employees show up after bonuses are issued. “Xerox was bringing people in here 10 times a week,” she said. Not so much anymore.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the Red Barn’s emphasis on relationships and service.
The Red Barn has been nationally recognized for its service and selection, earning “Best in Class” nods for seven consecutive years on Esquire magazine’s list of the best men’s specialty stores.
“I am fortunate to have worked in a profession I love, within a community that has supported and inspired me for so many decades,” Rhoda said. He counts among his friends many of his customers.
Michael Smith, founder and chairman of The Cabot Group, began as a customer when his wife bought him a sweater from the Red Barn more than 40 years ago. Now he considers Rhoda a great friend. And, he can’t imagine shopping anywhere else.
“It’s an experience,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to look for a quality product. And then when you get spoiled by the ancillary services that came with it, it’s going to be a tremendous loss for people like me.”
Smith described dropping by the store on a Thursday, hoping to find something at the last minute for an occasion on the following Saturday. He finds a jacket he loves, but it needs alterations. “Now I’m not only going to get it altered, but they’re going to find time to drop it off because I’m flying in from out of town,” he said.
Rhoda took a similar approach with many of his customers. The late Robert Wegman was a regular customer, dropping by with just 15 minutes to look over selections Rhoda had pulled out for him in advance. Then he’d ask for Rhoda to bring the selections he liked to his house so he could try them on. And Rhoda did, willingly.
Recently a young man dropped by close to closing time, and Rhoda fitted him for a suit to wear to his wedding, and some clothing to wear during an upcoming appearance on the television game show “Jeopardy.”
Smith said when he wanted to share the Red Barn experience with his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and four sisters, who were visiting from out of town, Pam Rhoda hosted them near the end of the day so they could have her full attention.
As customers have matured, so has Rhoda’s understanding of their likes and tastes.
“Don would call and say ‘Hey, your new jacket is in,’ ” Smith said, even though he hadn’t ordered anything. It was Rhoda’s way of saying something had arrived that he thought would appeal to Smith. So Smith responded by visiting the shop and found himself saying, “Dammit, that jacket is me. Yeah, I’m in.”
Wilmot said, “I’m just always impressed with Don’s eye… Probably 90 percent of my closet is from here.”
Rhoda said even before he decided to work in men’s clothing he always liked clothes, sporting a preppy look in high school featuring V-neck sweaters and starched shirts. Over the years, his tastes and buying habits earned him multiple trips to Italy hosted by an Italian trade association.
Finding taste and knowledge like Rhoda’s will be dificult after the retirement sale ends sometime before the end of 2019, customers said. Rhoda suggested looking at Van Maur, the full-service clothing store at Eastview Mall that offers higher end clothing and tailoring services.
One might be able to find similar products, Smith said, but replacing Rhoda won’t be possible.
“Where the heck am I going to have that same experience time in and time out when they’re done?” Smith said. His wife has suggested he might have to shop in New York. “You might find the product there, but you’re not going to get the whole package,” Smith lamented.
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