Changing suppliers, demographics and shopping habits have created a perfect storm, and the opportunity to walk away.
Recognizing today’s challenges to sustaining a family-owned business, Jim and John Rottle concede it is time to move on.
Rottles Clothing and Shoes – the unmistakable, flagship business on Main Street since 1939 and one of the largest independent clothing stores in the Green River Valley – officially closes June 27.
The twin brothers plan to retire. Third-generation proprietors, they have worked, co-owned and co-managed the apparel giant for a combined 75 years. They have accepted the impending closure with mixed emotions.
“It no longer makes financial sense for us to continue to do business the way we have done business,” Jim said while preparing the store for the 11½-week liquidation sale that began Thursday. “Our core customer, the baby boomer, they buy less clothes.
“If you think about it, there are no stores like us within, who knows, 100 miles or more,” he added. “Large, specialty stores like us have gone by the wayside, primarily because of, A, competition, and B, ownership has no succession plan, so they just shuttered their doors.”
GA Wright Sales, a Denver marketing company, is running the store-closing event, which includes the total liquidation of inventory and fixtures. The Rottle family hopes to sell or lease the two-story, 15,000-square-foot building to a “viable retail business” to serve the community and a growing residential population downtown.
The store has a staff of 15 part- and full-time employees.
Financially, the brothers said, Rottles was doing OK, but, as Jim admitted, “It’s not worth what we get out of it.”
According to the brothers, Rottles and other stores of its kind are struggling to keep up with the larger, corporate, chain-heavy competition. The retail landscape of brick-and-mortar retailing has changed dramatically, they said, with the advent of Internet sales, big box stores and a general downgrading of dress codes.
“The fashion culture has changed,” Jim said. “Most of our key manufacturers are actually competing against us with either outlet stores or selling over the Internet. It’s making it harder for retail partners to survive. The intent may be to increase brand awareness, but they are taking the market share we helped build.”
Rottles’ changing suppliers also have brought uncertainty.
The store’s formal wear supplier in Fife is closing, according to the brothers, and the factory that provides letterman’s jackets, a store tradition, is shifting operations from Lakewood to Wisconsin in June.
“We just don’t know what to expect,” John said of the changes. “It’s very timely that we’ve not only made the decision to cease operations as a clothing store, but it so happens that our biggest vendor, which is the letterman’s jacket manufacturer, is changing hands.”
The closure of the store will end a family tradition. The store has been passed down through generations.
The lineage began in 1939, when Abdo, a Lebanese immigrant, opened a modest store that occupied only 3,500 square feet and employed three.
When Abdo retired, his son, Don, took over the store in 1953. Nine years later, he moved the store from where the Auburn mini-mall stood to its current location. Over time, Rottles became the go-to apparel store, carving out a family-friendly niche with its customers in the teeth of larger competition.
In time, the store underwent renovations and grew. Its inventory also changed with the changing tastes of men and women shoppers.
Just as Don did when he was young, John and Jim began to work for their father and learn the business from the ground up. As teenagers, they worked in receiving and swept floors. After each went off to school and earned a business degree, they returned to help the family patriarch.
Don officially retired in 1997, but maintains a presence at age 89.
“It’s bittersweet to him,” John said of how his father reacted to the store’s closure, “but he understand and has embraced it with open arms.”
The brothers are compatible and complementary. Jim excels at merchandising, and has a photographic mind when it comes to customers and what they have in their closets, John contends. John, meanwhile, handles administrative duties.
Together, they worked long and hard hours to keep the family tradition alive.
Jim and John each have two daughters who have chosen different careers, thus leaving the store without a successor.
The brothers, who turn 60 in June, decided it was a good time to leave behind the long hours and the worries and retire. They plan to stay connected to Auburn and support the community they love.
Each has plans to travel, spend more time with family and remain active as volunteers and service club members.
“We thank the Auburn community for supporting us for so long, but it’s time to open up a new chapter,” Jim said.
Added John: “We intend to stay stakeholders in this community.”
Rottles’ departure represents a big blow to a struggling downtown, but Jim and John encourage leaders and merchants to redefine the area and grow with the changes.
“There’s a lot of promise … more culturally, less commodity driven,” John said. “I can foresee Auburn as a cultural mecca for live performances, with the PAC (Performing Arts Center), (Auburn) Ave Theater, comedy clubs. Perhaps a microbrewery and wine shops are needed downtown … and reacting to what younger people want.”
For store hours and more information, call 253-833-2750 or visit rottlesclothing.com.
What they are saying
“Rottles has been an integral part of our downtown for decades. I was saddened to hear of the closure, but I am excited for the opportunities that the Rottle family have in front of them. I know Main Street and downtown will continue to hold a special place in their hearts, and that the storefront will be utilized to help continue our revitalization. I appreciate how much time, effort, planning and yes, money goes into a family-ran business, and they have dedicated their careers to providing quality shoes, clothing and service. I wish them all the best, and look forward to see what the future will bring.” – Mayor Nancy Backus
“It will be a tremendous loss to downtown Auburn. It’s not just losing a department store, it’s losing those friendships. … We’re going to miss them.” – Laura Westergard, executive director of the Auburn Downtown Association. “
“Rottles has been a longtime supporter of the chamber and the downtown association. They have been strong pillars of our community. They always stepped up to support all of our nonprofits. Both Jim and John have served on many boards. They will leave an awesome legacy of volunteerism. And they will be greatly missed.” – Nancy Wyatt, president and chief operating officer of the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce
Abdo Rottle, a Lebanese immigrant, opened the family’s clothing store in Auburn in 1939. Groceries, hardware and other necessities stocked the shelves during those lean years and on into World War II. It was a modest operation. The store occupied only 3,500 square feet and employed three. COURTESY