Stung by one of the most devastating fires to hit downtown Washington a year ago, Rufus A. Isley is preparing to reopen his "Mr. Man" retail clothing store again on the F Street Mall.
Isley, 39, onced named "small businessman of the year" by the Small Business Administration, said last week his remodeled store would reopen in about six weeks with higher quality merchandise in an effort "to get away from the stigma that most black retailers have."
"Blacks in general are noted for 'Super-Fly' clothing," he said. "Most of the black people I know that are in business don't stock their stores that way, but a lot of the buying public stays away from black retailers because they think that's what they carry."
The first black retailer on the F Street Mall, Isley said "in the years that 'Super-Fly' was happening," in the early 1970s such a stock was profitable. "Today, all over the country, a few of those blacks (with that stock) have remained in business."
D.C. fire investigators still have not determined the cause of the three-alarm fire that gutted 1325 F Street on the night of April 2, 1976.
More than 100 firemen and 60 pieces of equipment at the scene that night were hampered in reaching the blaze by heavy metal screening used to protect the three-story building from burglars.
Six investigators probed the cause and determined that the fire was started "suspiciously" in the basement.
"The building was so badly burned it was hard to come up with a point of origin," said Fire Insp. Elbert Hicks. "But as rapidly as that building burned, we suspect some acclerant, a flammable liquid, was used."
It was partly the fire department investigation which caused the year-long delay in reopening the shop, according to Isley's attorney, Ronald C. Jessamy. Eventually, however, a settlement was negotiated with the insurance companies involved to cover the costs of rebuilding. The fire department had estimated the damage as $113,000 to the building and $215,000 to its contents.
Isley then negotiated with the D.C. government for new building permits, hired a contractor, handled the claims of about 20 customers who had merchandise in lay-away, and more importantly, settled with creditors - all while he was without an income, according to Jessamy.
"You never fully recover from a catastrophe like that," Jessamy said. "He'll be years trying to catch up on previous creditors because of the fire. But he's an upstart, a black entrepreneur. He was able to put it together enough even after the fire."
Isley's return to the F Street mall is welcomed by such long-time merchants as Frank Rich, the owner of the 107-year-old Rich's shoe store of 1321 F St.
"Anything of a positive nature has got to be a tremendous help to the street, to us and everybody else," Rich said. "If Rufus gets a good operation going, it'll help upgrade the street and may give his competitors the impetus to move up, too."
Rich acknowledged that the burned-out hulk adjacent to his store that was a bustling "Mr. Man" shop before the fire had been a major psychological barrier to the recovery of F Street in general. "Obviously we feel that the sooner Rufus gets back into business the better. We welcome him back."
The remodeled "Mr. Man" will be the fourth start for Isley. His first "Mr. Man" shop opened at 3006 14th St. NW early in 1968, but was damaged by fire several months later during civil disturbances in the 14th Street conrridor.
Later that year, Isley reopened the store and added a second, called "Mr. Man for Her," at 3016 14th St. NW. He merged the two stores at the F Street location in 1971, but folded the women's shop, which had been run by his wife, two-and-a-half years ago.
Isley, a former stock clerk, bought the original "Mr. Man" with a $25,000 SBA loan. In 1970, the SBA cited him for "exemplifying the imagination, initiative, independence and integrity by which the American small businessman makes a vital contribution to the nation."
With the reopened store, Isley said, "We'll move up a notch. I'm just trying to be a retailer, not necessarily a black retailer. We'll be getting most of our merchandise now from Europe." Suit prices will start at $185 to $250, he said. Formerly they ranged from $150 to $200. Suits, sportcoats and outerwear will account for about 50 per cent of his inventory. Previously, it was 40 per cent, he said.
"We're looking for an image we began to get a year before the fire," he said. "We were starting to attract the person in the higher income bracket, who wears suits to work every day."
"People in general aren't wearing as many jeans. They're wearing ties more. Suits are very important. And you don't have to sell as many suits (to make the same return) as you do shirts and pants," he said.
For Isley, who with his wife, Rosetta, owns all the stock in Mr. Man, Inc., there was never any question about reopening.
"I thought about getting a job," he said, "but I couldn't have given whoever hired me 100 per cent. I've been trying to get it back together and doing whatever I could to start rebuilding. I've been down there pushing wheelbarrows and doing whatever I coult to assist the contractor. It's something to keep myself busy."
The construction work began last January.