Leroux Fine Apparel for Men & Women (3220 W. McGraw St.) has clothed Magnolia for the last 65 years.
The current owners, husband-and-wife-team Alex and Mike Smith, bought the store in 1985. Bud Leroux first opened Leroux in fall 1948. He owned the then-men’s store for a few years before Russ Jacobson bought it in the ‘50s. Mike began working as the store’s manager for Jacobson while he was in college.
“He really liked Alex,” Mike said. “He kind of wanted to sell it to me, but he really wanted to sell it to us when Alex got involved.”
Leroux is very much a brick-and mortar-neighborhood store, and its owners are neighborhood people. Mike grew up in Magnolia; Alex grew up in Queen Anne. They both went to college at the University of Washington.
The couple bought the store and got married in the same year. Alex had been working in the men’s clothing industry as a clothing representative prior to taking on Leroux. She describes the store as a “better men’s and women’s clothing store.” It caters to a late-20s and older clientele. Customers are the young parents whose kids are at Lawton Elementary and Catharine-Blaine K-8 schools, the owners say.
The store is traditional, but the Smiths focus on fashion. They buy their merchandise from various trade shows.
“You have to stay up-to-date and bring in new things,” Alex said. “You’re constantly looking.”
A changing customer base
When they took over the store in the ‘80s, the neighborhood was in a transition phase, much like it is now, Mike said.
“The older bunch was pulling back, and a new bunch was coming in,” he said.
That change in demographics is a good thing: It means hope, Alex said. Through the years, the owners have shifted to reach a younger crowd. The store began selling women’s clothes in 1980.
“You want the younger generation to embrace you and take over, instead of your customers passing away,” she said.
Setting themselves apart is a strategic business decision. Leroux can’t compete with all of the stores downtown, mere miles away. Even though it’s a neighborhood store, about 40 percent of its business is from outside of Magnolia. About half of the business is done via shipping.
“We can’t just stick to Magnolia,” Mike said. “It has to be [more].”
One surefire way to set the store apart is customer service. When Mike gets a call that someone’s stopping in and they might not make it before 6 p.m., he stays open a little later.
Don’t remember what size sweater you bought last Christmas? Alex does.
If someone needs a hem, the store has a tailor and seamstress on hand to deliver a quick, custom fit.
“To be in business today, you have to take the extra step,” Alex said.
Taking the extra step has been all the more important since the economic downturn. Mike and Alex received calls from friends with similar businesses on the East Coast, saying the crash was coming, but “we didn’t know the extent.”
“It just kind of pulled the rug out from everything,” Mike said.
It changed a lot of Leroux’s business policies. They were buying clothing from closer sellers, looking over everything they did to try to improve and are open seven days a week now. About every season, Mike and Alex reposition themselves to to ease the burden of economic strain.
“We saw many of our friends disappear; their businesses disappeared,” Alex said.
Leroux is slowly coming out of the slump now. It’s not a quick turn-around, though.
“There’s a lot of new blood up here,” Mike said, referring to the Magnolia business district. “So, thank God, it’s a pretty stable neighborhood in that way.”
As the economy shudders and stumbles back to life, Magnolia is changing, too. People are “aggressively moving up here,” Mike said, especially young families who want to raise their children in a community that’s close to everything but still holds that “small-town feel.”
Mike used to roll his eyes at the Mayberry connotation in Magnolia, “but now I kind of embrace it,” he said.
Mayberry means knowing your neighbors, Alex said.
“As a neighborhood store for the past 28 years, they’re not just customers,” she said. “They transcend into being friends and, in some cases, part-family. That’s a gift.”
For the last 28 years, the Smiths have worked together. They argue like any couple, Mike said, but the area seems to be conducive to such relationships, as he names off business-owner couples throughout the village.
“When you work together, it’s different than the time you spend at home,” Alex said. “You have to have a strong relationship.”
Leroux only has two employees beside Mike and Alex — in a small business, everyone does everything.
“I’ll be washing the windows in an expensive suit; then the next minute, I’m back here writing checks. Then the next minute, I’m waiting on a customer,” Mike said.
The couple are in their 60s, “so it’s not like we’re going to do this forever,” Mike said. Right now, they don’t have an “exit plan.” The couple isn’t looking as far into the future as they used to; now, it’s a year or two ahead at a time.
The couple would like to see Leroux continue.
“It’s a great business, and I hope, in the future, that we see a continuation,” Alex said. “[I hope] someone else would have the joy and experience to be part of something so special in our community. Magnolia is a gift.”
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