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A constant thread

Arnold Argintar remembers when well-dressed men wore detachable collars and snappy straw hats.

He remembers when everybody smoked, and he employed a re-weaver just to fix cigarette burns in suits. Most vividly, he remembers when there were at least 30 other stores selling men's wear in and around downtown St. Petersburg.

You store up a few memories when you've been doing business on the same block since 1935.

But the 84-year-old Argintar, owner of Arnold's Men's Wear, doesn't dwell in the past. Six days a week, he is behind the counter of his shop at 548 Central Ave., selling clothes and shoes to men whose fathers and grandfathers bought from him in decades past.

"I like to work. That's what I care about," Argintar said. "I like to talk to people.

"I think my health is better by staying active at the store. I wouldn't live as long if I gave it up."

It's no surprise that an Argintar would survive when so many others failed. The family has been clothing men in the Tampa Bay area since Argintar's father, Max, opened a store in Ybor City in 1908.

Argintar graduated from Hillsborough High in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression. There was no money for college, and he knew he wanted to go into the clothing business anyway. So, with his father helping him get credit, he crossed the bay and opened Arnold's the same year, selling three-piece wool suits for $19.95.

Business picked up after World War II, in which Argintar served as an Army supply lieutenant in India and China. But before long, the first shopping plazas started to rise on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, starting a long decline for the downtown business district.

His competitors were dropping like buttons from a cheap shirt: Brown and Cook, Rutland's, Larry's, Maas Brothers, the College Shop _ all gone.

Arnold's wasn't immune to the trend. By the mid 1960s, Argintar said, "They were rolling up the sidewalks. It was really slow. I gave some heavy thought to quitting."

Salvation came via the U.S. mail. Some local postal carriers asked Argintar if he could outfit them with uniforms. Word spread, and soon carriers from throughout St. Petersburg were buying their uniforms from Arnold's.

"That really helped," Argintar said. "It was a little fringe that kept getting bigger and bigger."

Today, every postal carrier gets a $300 yearly allowance for uniforms, and hundreds of carriers from as far away as Sarasota and Bradenton spend their allowances at Arnold's.

"It's personal service that makes the difference," Argintar said. "We measure them, do the alterations for free and mail them the clothes."

Argintar has had to be nimble in adjusting to changing tastes. When men stopped wearing dress hats, he started selling shoes. He switched his focus to "high style" items that aren't available in every store: seven-button suits in tones of gold and peach, ankle-high snakeskin dress boots, two-tone shoes and bright sport shirts.

And he offers custom suits from a selection of reliable manufacturers, mostly in the $175 to $300 price range.

Overhead is low, since he has owned his building for many years. He employs one sales associate, Al El-Amin, who credits Argintar with teaching him the business.

"Always be firm and honest with the customer," El-Amin said. "Always be polite. Don't try to steer them wrong.

"But if they come in looking for a black suit and we only have a blue one _ then sell 'em what we got."

The latest challenge Argintar has faced is the trend toward casual dressing. But he's not worried. "It doesn't bother me," he said. "They always need pants. They always need shoes."

And although he doesn't sell women's clothing, he's always delighted to see women in his store.

"I like to see a woman come in with the man," he said. "Women like to accessorize: "You need a shirt and tie to go with that.' "

Argintar has been an active booster of downtown, including a term as president of the St. Petersburg Merchants Association. Now he's seeing a renewal, led by the restaurateurs and gallery owners who have formed the Gallery Central district.

Argintar said he likes his new neighbors and thinks they're good for his business. The feeling is mutual.

"I totally admire him. What a gem," said Mike Shapiro, who owns the Shapiro Studio & Gallery with his wife, Susan.

"He goes to lunch with his friends every day," he said. Even if it's an incredibly hot July day, "before he heads out the door, he makes sure his tie is straight. He has his coat. He's always impeccably dressed."

Susan Shapiro said Argintar has the respect of all the business owners nearby.

"We like him for himself, but we also like him because he's been in his store so long," she said. "We see as a strength of this area the fact that the owners are in their stores. There are no chains."

Argintar's first wife died after 28 years of marriage. He has been married to his second wife, Eleanor, for 31 years. Between them, the couple have four daughters, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

And after all these years in the business, what words of wisdom does Argintar have to pass along?

"No pressure," he said. "Just show them the merchandise. And you just have to keep a smile on your face."

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