Pink polyester zoot suits disappear from gentrifying D.C.

Before burying his father and uncle and just days before marrying his fiancee, Paul Vinson went to the place that has always figured in his milestone moments, a haberdashery on H Street NE that has been dressing black Washingtonians for 60 years.

He went to see his sartorial wise man, the always fabulously attired Willie Carswell, who was behind the counter at Men’s Fashion Center.

“You need ivory shoes, not watermelon,” Carswell pronounced, his high-pitched voice made for the stage, if not the pulpit. “We’re going dress you, top to bottom.”

Carswell was in matching slacks and a vest with lapels, the tan and brown stripes blending with his peach shirt, two-tone straw hat, three-tone shoes and burgundy necktie festooned with Redskins logos. A pair of crosses sparkled at the center of his diamond- encrusted cuff links.

Vinson, in a black Scarface T-shirt, knew not to argue.

In Washington, ever fewer shops exist where a man can buy a pink zoot suit in all its polyester glory. Now another is shutting down, the place where “Mr. Willie,” as he’s known to many of his customers, has presided since 1970.

At his peak, Carswell sold 1,000 suits a year. His patrons included postal workers, government bureaucrats and pastors. Sometimes, wives would sink into a worn chair by the cash register and bellow, “Willie! Make my husband look like you!”

Chuck Brown, the go-go music legend, bought his size 75 / 8 roll- brimmed hats at Men’s Fashion. Rayful Edmonds, the drug kingpin whose aunt was once the shop’s seamstress, came in every few weeks to buy Fruit of the Loom underwear for his soldiers, paying with hundred dollar bills he would politely lay on the glass counter.

The drug dealer’s money roll was “a knot big enough to choke you,” Carswell said.

Carswell started as the store’s security guard after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination ignited riots that ravaged the H Street area and other parts of the city. He moved up to salesman, manager and general manager as the corridor deteriorated, recovered and soared, a rebirth celebrated Saturday by tens of thousands at the annual H Street Festival.

Along the way, Carswell, 68, an African American raised in Georgia, found himself learning the intricacies of retail, and a smattering of the Yiddish that owner Murray Goldkind tossed about.

Gonnif!” Carswell would tell his co-workers, invoking the Yiddish word for thief when he thought one was perusing their aisles.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Men’s Fashion prospered, peaking on Father’s Day weekend in 2002, when the store held a “Buy One, Get One Free” sale and grossed $35,000. Carswell and his fellow salesman, Steve Davidson, collected enough in commissions to celebrate over steak dinners and buy themselves diamond rings.

Then, on the Monday after this past Easter, 42 years after Carswell started at the store, Jerry Goldkind, Murray’s son, called to say in a choked voice that he was shutting down in October. Goldkind then phoned Davidson, who began at Men’s Fashion 28 years ago, and who, as he listened to his boss’s words, felt as if “someone had snatched my heart out of my body.”

Carswell was so upset that he got on a ladder and took down from the wood-paneled wall by the entrance the dozens of photos and awards he had hung over the years — the snapshots of the blind church organist in the dark suit he sold him; the “Happy 50th Anniversary” vanilla sheet cake he bought from Safeway to celebrate the store’s birthday in 2002; himself in his various incarnations, red or purple, polka-dotted or striped.

“I wanted to go out with a big party,” Carswell said. “I’m going out with my head between my knees. ”

At the back of the store, in a cubbyhole of an office, the empty coffee pot was coated in dust. Jerry Goldkind, who took over the store after his father died, looked up from a desk cluttered with papers and bills.

“I have days where I don’t take in $100,” he said. “If someone came in to rob me, I’d have to write him a check.”

Men’s Fashion, with its pressed-tin ceiling and frayed carpet, is among the last of the businesses on H Street that have been around since the riots. Across the street, George Butler earlier this year shut down George’s Place, the clothing store he opened six months after King was assassinated.

Like Goldkind, Butler cited a variety of reasons for his business’s demise, including a recently completed District project to lay streetcar tracks along H Street. Several years of construction made parking difficult, and regular customers stopped showing up.

More importantly, perhaps, the neighborhood that the merchants once knew is no longer what it was when they began. Expensive restaurants and stylish bars, places with names like H Street Country Club and TruOrleans, now define a strip once populated by shoemakers and hardware stores, dry cleaners and clothing shops. Many of the black customers who shopped at Men’s Fashion and George’s Place have died or moved away.

“What’s going on, basically, is they drove all the Afro-Americans out of Washington, D.C.,” said Butler, 73. He said he felt no bitterness, having sold his property to the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, who has plans to open a restaurant. Goldkind said he would either lease his building or sell.

More than 125 businesses have opened on the strip in the past five years, the preponderance of them bars and restaurants, said Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street, a civic association. The number of vacant or boarded-up properties has shrunk from 50 percent to about 15 percent, he said.

For all the signs of new life, he said, losing shops like Men’s Fashion and George’s Place is about more than what they sold. “Each time you close a business like this, it’s like closing a library,” Saleem said. “So much knowledge, so much history.”

So much conversation.

Every day, customers show up, some to stand beneath the whirring fans and mull the 50-percent-off sales racks. A white clerical robe inexplicably hangs from the ceiling, above suits ranging in price from $150 to $200 and in color from dark brown and gray to lime green and powder blue.

Others come just to sip coffee and sit by the register as gospel music drifts from a radio, talking about the Redskins or their latest medical malady.

In recent months, the visitors have included a documentary film team chronicling the passing of another vestige of bygone Washington.

Anyone passing time at Men’s Fashion may hear Carswell and Davidson tell stories about “M.G.,” as they refer to Murray Goldkind, and how he fled Poland to escape the Nazis; how he opened a clothing surplus shop in 1952 with his brother Abe; how, after the riots, the Goldkinds turned their surplus store into a place to buy suits; how they hired Carswell after he got home from a 13-month tour of Vietnam and made him get help because he was killing himself with whiskey.

“They stayed behind me,” Carswell said. “M.G. was like my father.”

The Goldkinds gave him opportunities, sending him to wholesalers conventions in Baltimore and Atlantic City to buy the suits. Soon, he grew a loyal following, customers like the Rev. George W. Davis who has been shopping at the store for more than 30 years. Davis’s work took him to North Carolina, but he always returned when he needed a suit, hat, or a pair of shoes.

“Willie Carswell knows my waist size, he knows my arm length, my neck size — it’s in their records,” said the pastor, who claims no such knowledge of his own dimensions. “Everything I wear comes from Men’s Fashion. Even my bowling clothes. That’s why I tremble that they’re closing.”

As the store’s days dwindled, Carswell was in his familiar spot, behind the cash register or ambling between the racks.

“Hello, young man,” he said to a customer who was not so young. “How are you, sir?” he asked another. “Have a blessed day,” he told each customer after ringing him up.

Ronnie Reed, 54, a landscaper, took off his camouflage baseball cap and put on a black Stetson fedora.

“I got a piece of history now,” he said, paying and walking out the door.

Carswell sat down in a chair. He smoothed his slacks and folded his arms. He waited for someone to serve.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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