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Tyrone Square Mall's Pants Towne endures with old-school service

Business partners Ed Hausdorf, left, and Steve Becker bought Pants Towne from its founder, Rick Alvarez, in 2006. The Tyrone Square Mall institution has been in business since the early 1970s. Levi’s brand jeans are a big seller.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Business partners Ed Hausdorf, left, and Steve Becker bought Pants Towne from its founder, Rick Alvarez, in 2006. The Tyrone Square Mall institution has been in business since the early 1970s. Levi’s brand jeans are a big seller.

Sears and Spencer's Gifts are the longest-running chains at Tyrone Square Mall. But the longevity leader among independent stores is Pants Towne.

Its 37-year stand is a reminder that despite this age of e-commerce immediacy, predatory discount store pricing and fast fashion fads, simply offering what people want at a good price with attentive service works.

Otherwise, how could Pants Towne survive with 28 rivals in the mall plus six others within 2 miles peddling blue jeans?

We're talking old-school. No online selling. The owners work the register and buy the goods. They take special orders. Except for some token $99 Not Your Daughter's jeans, the premium denim craze eluded the place.

Kept current by T-shirts with silk-screened images from Guy Harvey, martial arts themes and snarky messages (a current big seller: George Bush asking, "Miss me yet?"), this clean but unadorned store has been dominated from the get-go by a broad selection of basic street jeans.

To woo trendy teens, Pants Towne rode a sampling of Von Dutch for a while, then Dickies and Ed Hardy. They're fading.

But the core remains the wall of cubicles jammed with eight styles of Levi's: from baggy and relaxed fits to popular slim, skinny and superskinny.

"The fads bring people in, but the basics move 90 percent of our business. Levi's are hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet," said Steve Becker, a 55-year-old third-generation merchant and onetime stand-up comic who has sold jeans since his teens.

The strategy served Pants Towne well. Malls churn through stores all the time to stay relevant. Yet remarkably few Tyrone merchants remain in real estate Pants Towne once shared with long-gone nameplates Barefoot Mailman, Farrell's Ice Cream, Rite Aid, Kinney Shoes, World Bazaar, Colony Shops and Casual Corner. Indeed, even two of Tyrone's four department stores are on their third owners.

Becker was hired on as a high school junior when founder Rick Alvarez, a veteran Chicago shoe store owner, set up his first Pants Towne near Plant High School in Tampa in 1972. Pants Towne branched into Tyrone, filling half the space of a faltering men's clothing store, then upgraded from selling bargain-priced irregulars at $7.99 to first-quality Levi's at $10.

Now retired at 72, Alvarez parlayed Pants Towne into a network of 35 stores at its 1980s peak. But he shrunk the chain and moved to the Catskills years before selling his last Pants Towne to its managers, Becker and his business partner Ed Hausdorf, 45, in 2006.

It remains a boot-strap operation. Rather than hire pricey store designers, Becker builds the fixtures himself. He's in no rush to sell over his store website or Facebook page until he has a capable clerk on staff willing to run it. Pants Towne uses Twitter, occasionally.

Through the recession, annual sales remained flat at about $700,000.

But the business adapts as the economy recovers. Lower mall rents led Pants Towne last fall to expand with a test store in Tampa's WestShore Plaza. And after no change in Levi's prices for six years, the doubled price of raw cotton bumped up the wholesale price of a pair of jeans by more than $2 last week. So far, Pants Towne is eating the price increase on 550 and 505 jeans it sells for $33.99, but watching what rivals do.

For a retailer who sticks to low-risk basics, Becker is upbeat. Winter tourists are filling malls and spending again. Some influential rap stars are wearing Levi's again. Converse, which Pants Towne has stocked since 1972, made a revival as part of Nike.

"We're coming back in style," Becker said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Tyrone Square Mall's Pants Towne endures with old-school service 02/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 5:28pm]
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