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During the Great Depression, a 23-year-old business school graduate from Muncie wanted to open a men’s clothing store in downtown Crawfordsville.
Harold “Nick” Nixon had begun fitting white-collar workers with upscale dress suits before he was in high school, and his research showed that Wabash College professors and RR Donnelley salesmen could afford the high-end labels.
Nixon borrowed $6,000 from his boss, Herschel Steck, who would own half of the new store.
But when Steck’s Men’s Store opened in the summer of 1936, half of the clothing boxes were empty. Nixon had no money to stock his part of the floor.
“So what would happen is, somebody would come in and ask for a shirt,” said Nixon’s son, Wade. “And he’d go to the box knowing full well that there wasn’t one in there, opened the box and said, ‘Oh, we just ran out, let me get that one for you. We’ll have it in a couple of days.’”
With the money the customer would have paid, Nixon bought a box of shirts in the required size. “That’s how they built up the inventory,” the younger Nixon explained.
Long before big box chains dominated the retail landscape, Steck’s was a destination for men looking to dress for business. The company later expanded into women and children’s apparel, and a gift shop was opened with an upstairs deli. The stores were connected beneath the company’s trademark portico.
The coveted Donnelley salesmen bragged that Steck’s offered better clothes than the stores in New York City. Customers traveled from Indianapolis and Chicago to browse the racks, and stores were opened in Lafayette and Purdue University’s campus.
“When someone walked in the front door of our store, they were the most important person in the world,” said Nixon, who was 12 when he began working at the stores.
The family’s dedication to customer service was sometimes extended outside the store. A wedding party rented tuxedos from Steck’s, which ordered the suits from an Indianapolis company. The groom’s pants were about six inches too long. As the wedding march played, Nixon was stapling the hems.
But as consumer tastes changed, the company began struggling to compete with bigger retailers.
Nixon’s father welcomed the arrival of Boulevard Mall at first, convinced that customers would come downtown if they couldn’t find the right fit in the department stores. The mall capitalized on the demand for value over specialty, and businesses like Steck’s became increasingly more expensive to operate.
When Nick Nixon died in 1984 and the company was handed over to Wade and his sister, Salli, the siblings faced the difficult choice to wind down the stores. The Greater Lafayette stores closed first, followed by Crawfordsville’s in 1990.
“Our customers were incredibly loyal and … they stayed with us to the bitter end,” Nixon said. “There was just wasn’t enough of them because the cost of doing business had gone up so much.”
Crawfordsville Main Street program manager Sue Lucas said she grew up believing value meant “cheap,” but is happy to see younger shoppers spending more of their money in brick-and-mortar stores.
In a 2017 National Retail Federation survey, half of millennials and their younger Gen Z counterparts said they were shopping in stores more than they were the year before. Nearly three-quarters said they visited a store to buy something specific, not just browse.
“The personal connection is reawakening,” Lucas said.
The makeup of local downtown business owners is also changing. As recently as five years ago, Lucas said, the average merchant was about 60. Now several thirty-something entrepreneurs have opened bars, restaurants and other businesses.
Nixon said younger consumers are realizing the importance of good customer service.
“My advice is very, very simple,” he said. “Treat your customers the way you want to be treated and you will always be all right because everyone wants to be treated well and if you aren’t treated well, I don’t care what the price is.”