M. Dumas and Sons
Downtown. 294 King St. 723-8600
In the rough-and-tumble world of King Street retail, you don't let a little car trouble hold you back.
At 1 a.m. on Jan. 24, a drunk driver knocked a hole in the Society Street wall of M. Dumas and Sons. Longtime employee David Gallipeau (pictured, in checkered shirt) arrived 10 minutes later to find a pile of white bricks and Barbour coats. By noon the next day, Charleston's Best Men's Clothing Store was back in business.
"For us to close it would have to be something really disastrous," Gallipeau says. "This was just a hole in the wall."
Police found the driver, a College of Charleston junior, down on Elizabeth Street. She has no recollection of what happened, but, Gallipeau says, "they were able to identify her by the half-dozen bricks on the front of her car."
Gallipeau says the young lady came in and apologized. Although a little disturbed about seeing merchandise in such disarray, he otherwise has an "it happens" attitude about the whole incident.
(It has happened, actually. Twice in the 1970s, drivers smashed through the store's wall, according to owner David Dumas.)
On a recent mid-February day, the brickwork had already been repaired and the store looked as good as ever. It was cold and rainy but manager Jordan Lash had his bright, pastel spring line out. Pennington and Bailes Stadium Pants, festooned with Clemson, Auburn, and other college logos were right up front, stacked high. (One of the store's trademarks is showing a lot of merchandise.)
Banana Republic took Best Men's Clothing Store every year from 1999 to 2004, except in 2003, when Berlin's pulled off an upset. This is Dumas' third year atop the heap, and David Dumas (pictured, in the blue shirt) doesn't see anyone else as a Goliath.
"I don't really think there's a battle between the big chains and the independent retailers," he says. "I think we kind of stand alone. We're not a cookie-cutter type store. People have fun when they shop in our store."
The store has two seemingly contradictory strengths. One is its age and class -- "We remind people of what men's stores were like before all the big chains," Dumas says. The other is adaptability -- a trait that the reeling GAP companies are going to have to learn quickly.
The business started in 1917 as a pawn shop. After about 10 years it morphed into selling work and Navy uniforms, and then, when Levi's became popular, shifted its focus toward fine and casual clothing.
"We used to sell tons and tons of Levis for $35 a pair," Dumas says. "Now we're selling premium denim jeans for $150 to $300 a pair with no resistance. Who would have figured, five or six years ago, that men would be spending that kind of money for jeans?"
The M in the name stands for Mendel Dumas, David's grandfather, who opened the original store on the corner of Market and King, in the space now occupied by Christian Michi's boutique. The "sons" were Abe and Joe (David's dad).
David started working in the store when he was 11, in the early 1970s, about the same time it moved to the present location. The letter H still in the terrazzo entrance stood for Haverty's Furniture, but "we can just say it stands for 'Hello,'" David says.
The self-described "town and country clothier," Dumas says his store is different things to different people.
"To old-guard Charlestonians, we're known for khaki pants and button-down shirts and blazers. To the C of C student, we're Vineyard Vines and Lacoste. To the outdoor guy we're Barbour and Filson. But there's tremendous overlap."
Dumas says those pants with the embroidered emblems all over them are an old preppy Eastern Seaboard/Nantucket look that has come back. They're aimed towards a younger set, he says, but customers don't have to be young to buy them. Other than great service and a liberal return policy, one of Dumas's standbys is "never prejudge a customer based on his age."
Big chain retailers who underestimated his quirky, unique operation might be saying the same thing about their competitor.