Benjamin’s Menswear (277 Water St., St. John’s) began life as the men’s department of watchmaker Benjamin Bowring’s department store, which he opened more than 200 years ago on Water Street.
John McCarthy, owner of Benjamin’s Menswear, says while workplaces today are more casual than they were two decades ago, he’s seeing more interest in younger office workers looking to differentiate themselves by dressing up. — Photo by Dan MacEachern/The Telegram
It was eventually transformed into the chain of home decor stores across Canada that are no longer connected to the Bowring family. The men’s department became known as “Benjamin’s of Bowring” until current owner John McCarthy dropped “of Bowring” and added “Menswear” about a decade ago. Bowring Properties still owns the building and McCarthy rents from them, even as he’s forged his own path without the Bowring name.
Who opened Benjamin’s Menswear, and when?
Benjamin’s Menswear is the original men’s department in the Bowring department store, which was in this spot, so really, I guess technically, it opened in 1811 when Bowring started his business on Water Street. It’s obviously changed quite a bit since then. … I’ve owned it about 20 years now. Obviously it’s passed along to what it is today, so it’s got quite a long history.
Who did you take it over from?
I bought it from Baine Johnston.
Tell me what Benjamin’s does.
Benjamin’s sells pretty much all forms of men’s clothing, whether it’s jeans or dresswear. If you need clothing and you’re a man, you can pretty much get what you need here. Clothing is probably — from what I’m wearing, a suit, shirt and tie point of view — our mainstay.
We pride ourself in the fact that we sell Canadian-made products in clothing. Pretty much all of our suits, with the exception of one brand, are made in Canada, which I think is important. But we also carry sportswear, so if you need a pair of jeans we have that, too.
Over the last number of years we’ve diversified more into that type of a business, away from just strictly (suits), because at one time we would have been just strictly suits. But we’ve changed that within the last 10 or 15 years.
Are workplaces more casual than they were even since you took over the store?
Oh, yes, no doubt. What we see the difference in now, is it’s the younger guy who wants to dress up now. It’s the 20-year-old. He’s starting his career. So that’s where our growth is in our business, and obviously we carry clothing to be very mindful of how he wants clothes to fit.
Because obviously the 55-year-old customer and the 25-year-old customer want clothing that fit differently. So we have a wide range of product now to encompass not only this very narrow client base.
How did you get into the menswear business?
I started here in ’89. I’d always been in retail. The opportunity came up to purchase the store.
If you started here in ’89 and bought it 20 years ago you weren’t here very long before you bought the place.
Yes, it was quite soon after. Baine Johnston bought this building, and bought whatever was in it, and the men’s department of the store survived because it was something that was profitable in the day. They decided, “Well, we’ll keep it,” not really thinking that’s not their business, really, in retail. They own other retail operations, but usually on a much larger scale.
So who is the Benjamin in Benjamin’s?
Benjamin is actually Benjamin Bowring, who was the first Bowring. They came to Newfoundland in 1810ish. There’s a lot of history here.
Do you feel that’s a lot to live up to as the store owner now?
I think we have — obviously, no doubt, the product’s different than it was 200 years ago, but we certainly have a very good reputation for what we sell and how we service our customers. It still holds a certain amount of respect, I think, in the community.
How many people work here?
There’s five, including myself. I’m a true believer: You need to be here to get a sense of what’s going on in my store, so I think it’s very important for the owner, to get a true sense of what his clients and what his customers need, to be there.
How have trends changed in menswear since you took over?
Styles of suits are trimmer, certainly geared towards that younger consumer who wants a suit that fits, that fit 30 years ago. There is a cycle in men’s clothing that does come around, and comes around because of the consumer.
Now, a young guy doesn’t want a big suit that his father would have worn 50 years ago. He wants it tidy. But his father would have worn a nice trim-fitting suit 30 years ago. So it all kind of works its way through. The consumer now wants a suit that fits tidy — there’s no pleats, as opposed to a few years ago, everything was pleats.
Now that younger customer wants to find their own fit. They don’t want the fit of their dad. They want their own. And that’s generally how, in my opinion, the fashion industry changes, because the consumers want to have their own little place within.
As an independent store, how do you compete with chains like Moore’s, for example?
The knowledge of my staff is very important. We pride ourselves in knowing how things should fit. We do a fair bit of product knowledge from a fabrication point of view. The fact that I deal with Canadian manufacturers gives me the ability to get product pretty much next-day. I’m dealing directly with these manufacturers in Hamilton and Montreal, so the ability to garner product. And I think people want to go to stores that do have knowledge.
So has the store always been in more or less the same position?
It’s the same building, in the exact same spot as it is on the street. In the day, it was up in the corner. The spot we’re standing in is where the cosmetics and the handbags were when it was a department store. But this is the building.
You’re downtown — what are the pros of the location, what are the cons of the location?
I’ve always been downtown. I think the heart of our city is downtown, and the stores that are down here are unique. My consumer comes for a purpose. It’s all about “I need to have something.” So even though, obviously, we all talk parking, I find my guy finds the time to do it. “I’ll take an hour today” or whatever.
My passing traffic is a little different from what you’ll find at the mall, but my traffic that walks in, they’re here for a purpose. They need to have something. They know the quality they’ll get here. I’ve been here almost 25 years. … Staff, there’s very little turnover. When you walk in here, if we know you from previous times, then we know what you’ll want. … Businesses downtown are very much like that. The product is unique; you won’t find most of the product in this three-block radius, or six- or seven-block radius of downtown, you won’t find in any place in the mall. You won’t find it any place in the city. It’s very unique.
People who want something that’s a little different, they don’t want the mainstay, they don’t want to look like everybody else, then they’re going to come to mine and to other stores in the downtown.
I imagine you’re still looking forward to some parking opening up in new developments downtown.
Oh, no doubt, and it’s coming, for sure. But I’ve been here since ’89, and ’89, the early ’90s, wasn’t a great time to be in retail. We persevered downtown; we could certainly have packed up and moved somewhere else, but we never.
Are there any downsides downtown? What’s crime like? Have you had any trouble?
We’ve had very little shoplifting. We keep a pretty clean store. We’re pretty keen in the store. I don’t, personally, think crime is an issue for me. No doubt, there are other stores on the street that it is. … Knock on wood, I hope it continues, but we’re pretty fortunate, I think, that crime is not really much of an issue.
Do you find St. John’s to be a business-friendly city?
Certainly in my experiences with the city, I think it is a friendly city to do business in. I haven’t had much issue at all.
What’s rent like for you?
There’s no doubt in the last number of years rent has become an issue. The fact that I am very well established, it’s not that rent increases don’t hurt — but I think the property owner’s been very fair. My history here — I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I they realize that. They treat me very fairly.