Bucking a tide of depressed retail profits, Garfinckel, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhodes Inc. yesterday reported improved earnings for the 13 weeks ended Nov. 1.

The profits of the Washington retail conglomerate increased to $3.71 million (84 cents a share) from $3.67 million (82 cents) in the same period a year ago. The slight gain in earnings came with a 14 percent jump in sales for the quarter, to $120.5 million from $105.7 million last year.

The sales gain was substantially greater than most retailers have been reporting, but Chairman David Waters said much of it was offset by higher interest, promotional and payroll expenses.

The company's pretax profits for the quarter were almost $450,000 less than last year, but the tax rate was lower, so bottom-line earnings improved slightly.

For the first nine months of 1980, Garfinckel's operations earned slightly less money than last year. Net income from continuing operations was $5.76 million ($1.29), down from $6.14 million ($1.36); sales increased to $311.5 million from $280.9 million.

James River Corp., a Richmond paper company, reported its second-quarter operating profits fell to $3.2 million (61 cents a share) from $5 million (99 cents) last year because of depressed sales of industrial papers.

Sales were off from $94.3 million to $91.4 million for the quarter and were down from $181.6 million to $169.3 million for the first half of the year, the company said.

Settlement of an antitrust suit against James River's Reigel Paper Co. subsidiary wiped out about $1.3 million of the quarterly profits; the company pleaded no-contest to a charge that Reigel was involved in a price-fixing conspiracy before it was acquired by James River.

First-half earnings fell from $9.1 million ($1.78) to $5 million (96 cents) before the cost of the antitrust settlement and to $2.1 million (36 cents) after the write-off.