Starkville — George Sherman still rings up customers on a 1910 crank cash register at George Sherman Clothiers. He handles all the ordering, correspondence and filing. He’s not a micromanager, but admits he doesn’t delegate well. And he’s usually the last person to show up at a Saturday night dinner party, often still wearing dress clothes from his work day.
“My friends all kid me and say I’m probably the only 53-year-old guy that still wears a starched shirt and tie on Saturdays,” said Sherman, with a laugh. “Come to think of it, I probably am!”
Sherman, who refers to himself as “an old-timey merchant,” was on the fast track to law school, with a political science degree from Mississippi State University in hand, when he decided to open a clothing store in Starkville instead. On July 1, 1973, he opened The Down Under, located on Lafayette Street underneath Sullivan’s Business Supply.
“That was during the time of polyester and leisure suits, not the kind of thing I wore or liked,” he said. “A lot of guys like me grew up in the ‘60s wearing oxford button-downs and Bass Weejuns and all of a sudden, you couldn’t find them. That’s how we really made our niché, by specializing in all-cotton oxford and pinpoint button-downs, traditional wool trousers and men’s suits. We went against the tide.”
When Sherman moved the store in 1975, the name no longer applied so he changed it to George Sherman Clothiers. The retail store was the second in the state to carry Polo Ralph Lauren, which remains a mainstay line. He also carries Robert Talbot ties, Lacoste knit shirts, Kenneth Gordon dress shirts and Jack Victor suits and other recognizable high-quality brands.
“My biggest challenge has maybe been establishing our retail store’s identity because a lot of people perceive us as a college guy’s store, and the college guys may perceive us as a young corporate store, but we cover both,” said Sherman. “I realize that you can’t be fish and fowl. You have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything, as the old saying goes. We try to blend real traditional clothing with an upbeat flair, from $49 jeans to $795 suits and everything from soup to nuts in between. We’re not trendy, and we don’t want to be. We want to have clothing that is a good value and has longevity, something you can buy and wear and it’s your favorite thing, like an old pair of jeans.”
A Greenville native, Sherman grew up in a retail environment, helping in the family business, Johl & Bergman Shoes, now owned by his brother. “That’s where I learned camaraderie, a genuine love of people, a strong work ethic and a sense of humor,” he said. “We’d do everything from fitting babies for their first shoes to delivering house shoes to the nursing home.”
Sherman’s grandparents owned a neighborhood grocery store “and knew every customer by his or her first name,” he said. “I realized that’s the cloth from which I’d been cut.”
He chose to locate a business in Starkville “because it’s home to a wonderful mixture of people from all walks of life and all parts of the country who come here mainly for Mississippi State,” he said. “It’s great to experience all these different cultures without leaving home.”
Even though the clothing store remains “the springboard of all my activities,” Sherman has diversified his business investments. In addition to acquiring and managing four-plexes and rental units around town, he developed a 36-unit condominium in 1985 and College Park Shopping Center in 1986. He invested in cable television in 1990 and a vending machine business in 1993, and has since sold those interests.
Since opening Prudential Starkville Properties with Melanie Mitchell, a top sales leader in Mississippi for Coldwell Banker, in 2002, it has become one of the city’s largest listing agencies. He has divested himself of residential holdings and retained commercial real estate. On August 16, he opened his first Zaxby’s, across the street from the new Lowe’s on Highway 12, and October 14, he opened Lenny’s Sub Shop in the College Park Shopping Center. He plans to open another Zaxby’s and Lenny’s in Columbus.
“Every venture has a common thread: people,” said Sherman. “Some people love to travel for adventure. I love having people come in and out of my doors, and getting a chance to know them a little bit. I haven’t traveled much, but the places my clothes have been! We get to visit with customers about where they’re going, and make sure they have comfortable shoes for touring museums and sightseeing. Repeat customers represent the secret of a successful business, not trying to sell for today or sell the wrong thing. If you truly service people’s needs, when they need something else, they’ll come back to you.”
Helping groom part-time employees, mostly college students, for the business world, is the most satisfying part of maintaining the retail store, said Sherman.
“When they come in here, they’re 18 and true college freshmen,” he said. “By the time they leave, they know people’s names and their likes and dislikes. And I know they’re going to do a great job for whoever they go to work for full-time.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.