Digging Up Artifacts in Ancient Beverly Hills

22 Jun 2008
June 22, 2008

Unearthing High Quality Threads

3x5 card of my father's buying record

One of my father’s early buying sprees: two sport coats for under $40, size 44L. Click image for a larger view.

Happy Father’s Day! Wait, you didn’t get the memo? I was out of town last weekend so here at Chez Gates we’re celebrating Father’s Day today. Last week I went “home” –back to Los Angeles for the opening of a photo show I’m in at the Huntington Library. And, as luck would have it, I had an unscheduled chance to reconnect with my father.

My sojourns back to L.A. are always frenetic and filled with mixed emotions. Too much family history. Arranging meetups with relatives and friends while driving the severely clogged freeways is exhausting. As always I’d pay a visit to my parents’ graves (sadly, my family reunions are slowly moving from my relatives’ homes to Mt. Sinai Memorial Park). But this time I had one day all to myself so I scheduled in some culture. Starting with a small show of George Hurrell photographs at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica, I then made a beeline down Wilshire Boulevard to the L.A. County Museum of Art to see their new Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The eight and a half miles from start to finish took an hour. There is no “immediately there” there in LA these days. But it didn’t matter. I had no appointments to keep or so I thought.

As I drove through Beverly Hills I passed South Beverly Drive and without warning I thought of my father. South Beverly Drive: my father used to buy his suits at a men’s shop on this street. What was its name? Malibu Clothes, that was it. As a youngster my father dragged me with him on his periodic trips to buy his suits (you can imagine how exciting it was to tag along with dad to a stuffy store to buy clothes). He bought me my first sport coat at Malibu for my cousin’s bar mitzvah in the late 50s. But what was so intriguing back then was the gatekeeper at the store’s entrance. They sold wholesale decades before outlets and you had to be referred in order to get in. There was always an old man sitting at a counter waiting to get your name. It was my first brush with exclusivity. To a seven year old it was like a secret club.

Now I was trying to unearth this flashback. I continued on my drive towards the museum but the memory gnawed at me. And when I noticed a free curbside-parking slot I pulled over to google the store. Could it still be there? If something lasts twenty years in L.A. it’s ancient. Yes! According the Web page Malibu Clothes had been in existence for 65 years! I called to make sure this was it. “Is this the store where you have to be referred in order to get in?” I asked. “Yes” came the answer. “My father used to buy me suits there. Do you think you’d still have our names on file?” “Oh, we keep all records,” came the reply. I turned around.

When I entered the second floor store my vision of the place returned with total clarity. This was definitely it. There was the small counter where you gave your name and as I looked up I had confidence they would be able to find records of our familial visits. Before me stood the largest rotating card file cabinet I’d ever seen. Thousands upon thousands of 3×5 cards with clients’ names were filed away. I told them who I was but they couldn’t find any record. Perhaps it was under my father’s name. Suddenly I remembered the last time I was in there.

It was 1975. Fresh out of graduate school I was about to go on my first interviews for a college teaching job. And my father wanted to buy me a suit for the occasion. Looking for a teaching position in a suit was a bit overkill. But that was my father’s vision of a job interview. I remember one interviewer at the College Art Association’s job “meat market” stating: “Why you’re the only one who looks like he’s looking for a job!” My father had a hard time saying how proud he was of me. But this was one way he could. It was camel-colored three-piece affair. The memory was complete.

The man looked under my father’s name and pulled out a thick stack of cards stapled together. There in his hand was the 45-year history of my father’s clothes selections. After examining his cards, the salesman stated: “Ah, I remember your Dad.” When I told him he had died eight years ago he said they’d remove him from their list. “Can I keep his cards?” I asked.

According to their records, my father first came to Malibu Clothes in 1955, referred by one Ray Buchman. I had no idea who that was. In December 1956 he bought two sport coats, each under $40, and a pair of slacks. Every time he bought something they marked it on a card. I thumbed to the last card dated August 18, 2000. Handwritten ledgers from the early years had given way to bar codes: three pair of slacks. A month later he’d be in the hospital and a month after that I’d make a hasty trip to L.A. for his funeral. Here it was: a side of my father I’d never thought of. Almost a decade after his death I had retrieved a rich history of him on a whim this past Father’s Day weekend.

There’s Nothing Like the Feel of Quality Bamboo

I should tell you, when it comes to tailored clothes I’m a sucker for old world charm. I wear jeans to work but sometimes I need to dress up a bit. In the last few years my sport coat purchases have largely been confined to flea markets and second hand stores (with one major exception when I learned to luxuriate in bouclé). In these vintage stores I’m on my own and often find clothes that “almost” fit perfectly. So it’s nice when my desire to find something a bit different than the conservative blue blazer meets someone who knows their trade. I love when a tailor masterfully makes a coat fit me perfectly. And this was that place. I asked to look around.

I spied a light-colored two button piece. “That’s made of bamboo,” Marv, my salesman for the day, stated. Let’s see, you’re a…” “I’m a 42 Regular, I cut in.” “Hmmm, yes, but let’s try this half size larger. No, you’re right. You are a 42.” It looked good. I looked very good. But I was afraid to ask the price. “These sell at Barney’s in New York. You can imagine how much that might be,” Marv said. For the uninitiated good quality sports coats can go for as much as $600-$1000. I’d been to Barney’s. I believed him. I could feel the quality in the fabric. But I was willing to walk away if need be. This was an impulse visit, but I wasn’t an impulse shopper.

“So, how much is this?” I asked. He looked down at the label to translate the secret price code (this is wholesale and they take precautions I assumed). “This one’s $275.” OMG, I thought. Now I understood why dad came here all these years. This was a steal. As I pondered my decision, a new customer walked in: an old gentleman shuffling slowly with the aid of a walker. Clearly they knew him well. They didn’t have to ask his name before they pulled his cards. He was in town from New Orleans to buy some suits.

A few alternations, my jacket should be arriving Monday to show the family. My daughters look out at the bamboo in our backyard and can’t imagine just what a coat made of those shoots would look like. Now I have my own card at Malibu Clothes. And, guys, if you ever need a good quality coat or suit wholesale, just drop my name. Make your own history.

6 replies
  1. ralph says:

    What a find! The creative use of space on the card is such a refreshing change from the boring sameness of computer generated records. And if the store had used a computer to keep track of records, I bet that most of your father’s past purchases would be inaccessible now.
    I bought a can of paint and a tool the other day and the salesman filled out the invoice by hand and added up the amounts by hand! But then he spoiled it by using a calculator to compute the tax. The whole transaction took less than a minute.
    The next day I bought another can of paint (a slightly different shade of green than the first one, my wife is an artist and we are building a house) at another store. This one used a computer to ring me out and it took 3 or 4 minutes to enter all the information the computer wanted.

  2. Sassenach says:

    What a great story! I’m with Ralph, the handwritten index cards add human detail to the tale a way that computer-generated records never will.

  3. Dona says:

    Oh Jeff – what a delightful story. I hope we get photos of you in your new suit after it arrives.

  4. Leah says:

    What a wonderful experience to be able to retrieve and relive some of those memories and get a fabulous sports coat at an incredible price!

  5. Jeff says:

    Coat arrived on schedule from L.A. Did an impromptu fashion show for the family. Got the seal of approval from my wife. Next time I see you, if you don’t recognize me, I’ll be the one wrapped in bamboo!

  6. Brian Cornforth says:

    That’s my family. My grandfather’s brother Bill founded the shop and I’m sure the family still runs daily operations. It’s been 20-something years since I’ve lived in LA and I’ve been out of touch with that entire gang since then—I was never that close to any of them to begin with– but my guess it’s Bill’s grandson Rick who’s now the boss.
    Bill bought Rick’s wife’s ’79 Toyota Celica for me as a present when I was a starving movie-star wannabe in the day and got me a job across the street with a company called Century Video, the owner of which had bought his house from the old man (who had carried back a note) and who was, I believe, in chronic default on the mortgage. So they gave me a job as a favor to him. My girlfriend had a part-time receptionist’s gig at Malibu in the summer of ’82 and she operated the giant rolodex.
    I have my own memories of the place. Every year they’d have the big 4th of July sale and members would fly in from all over the country. They’d line up around the block in the mid-summer heat to save a few bucks on a suit. I knew nothing of the rag biz but everyone had to come in to help out. I would bag the merchandise on the way out and walk around straightening out the stacks of pants.
    After 3-4 days of the madhouse and thousands of sales, still untouched would be these horrible neon color double-knit golf pants in plus sizes, the cheapest crap in the store. The old-time salesmen would assure me though that they would indeed be purchased on the last day in the last half-hour by none other than Rudy Vallee, the megaphone man. And sho’nuff on the last day in the last half-hour, in would come Rudy off the course, shvitzing like a madman, and buy the puce and key lime plaid pants for $12. Did it every year I worked the sale.
    There was also a real old couple of concentration-camp survivors. As they were wearing summer short sleeves, you could see the tattoos. The man had a big one that took up his whole inner forearm and the woman had a small delicate one in a different handwriting. And I always wondered but never asked the story behind this. Were they a couple before the war that reunited later? Did they meet after the war at a survivor group? Did the women usually get the small tattoos as policy or was it simply the whim of a particular tattooist (maybe saving money on ink near the end of war, who knows?) But I never asked because it seemed inappropriate. Looking back on it though, I realize that they probably would have loved to tell me the story as so many survivors do—hey it was their great triumph over evil and ultimate adversity to have somehow gotten through that and something with which to regale younger generations so that they shall truly never forget. But I didn’t ask, I moved away, and I’m pretty sure they’re long dead by now.
    As is Bill, as is I imagine his son Stan, as are many of the old salesmen. Ah, but them’s were the days… LA in the 80s was very different than it is today, as you know better than I. It was a much kinder gentler (and much less crowded) place, indeed paradise to a New Yorker like myself. I miss it, and Malibu Clothes was an integral part of my experience there.

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