"I'm a Downtown Man"

Jimmy is a big man in a small, strange world.

Gus's Fashions has occupied the northwest corner of Tucker and Washington for the last 15 years. The store specializes in the jackets, T-shirts, caps, pants and shoes that appeal to the hip-hop crowd and to urban youth in general. The place is bustling most days. Gus doesn't pay to advertise; word-of-mouth sells the store. And what aspiring playa wouldn't want to shop at a store where the big names go? Over on the sales counter, taped to the register, are the Polaroids, and they're advertising enough. There's rapper Flavor Flav in one picture, his arm around a beaming Gus. The setup is repeated in the other pictures -- Kurtis Blow, his arm around Gus; Tupac Shakur, gone these four years now, his arm around Gus; Ice T, leaning into Gus.

The store definitely draws an incongruous mix of customers. On the one hand, as one Loft District business owner disdainfully puts it, "You've got all these posses and crews coming down to buy their colors, their team jackets." On the other hand, the place is well-trafficked by uniformed police officers -- not necessarily patrolling but shopping. "They ought to put a camera in there," says St. Louis Police Sgt. Denny Pollihan, a frequenter of Gus' store. "You could make a hit TV sitcom with all the arguing that goes on between Jimmy and Gus in that store -- it's a classic."

Jimmy at the age of 18, in 1973. He had already been a pool shark and hung out with bikers, wearing the colors of the God's People motorcycle gang.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jimmy at the age of 18, in 1973. He had already been a pool shark and hung out with bikers, wearing the colors of the God's People motorcycle gang.
Jimmy gets ready for a haircut in the back office at Gus's. The pistol is part of his everyday ensemble, which also includes a badge and handcuffs.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jimmy gets ready for a haircut in the back office at Gus's. The pistol is part of his everyday ensemble, which also includes a badge and handcuffs.

Jimmy is not pictured with any of the rappers in the Polaroids, nor does he care to be. "I'm not into any of that at all," he sniffs. "That's new-school stuff, music to commit suicide by, as far as I'm concerned. I shook hands with them; that doesn't mean I have to like them."

Who he is down with are the legendary bluesmen -- Elmore James, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf. In fact, Sunday nights, late, when he's in the mood, Jimmy sings a few numbers with a band at the Missouri Bar & Grill. "I do 'Red Rooster' two ways," Jimmy elucidates in his thick, croaking voice. "The Sam Cooke way or the Howlin' Wolf way, with the deep-Southern-plantation version."

Walk inside Gus's Fashions between 11 and 8, and, chances are, the first person you'll encounter is Jimmy. He may be at the counter or over by the shoes. The place does a brisk trade in footwear. In sneakers, the Reebok line is big, but so is Converse, and it's not just anywhere in St. Louis that one can get the original high-top All-Stars for $25. As for boots, Gus's carries the nylon-surfaced Avirex in various bright colors, although -- strange, for an inner-city outlet -- it's the Timberland hiking boots that rule sales. The store still carries suede Puma shoes, which lapsed out of style and now are enjoying a comeback with college kids. Carry anything long enough, it becomes retro.

Jimmy's not your ordinary store clerk. He also pulls guard duty -- or, at least, he's wearing the gear. He wears a badge on his shirt, and attached to his belt are a police radio and handcuffs. Sticking out from the waistline of his trousers is the grip of a pistol, unholstered, in plain view. It's a starter's pistol, but customers with larceny on their minds don't need to know that.

Yet, above all, Jimmy is the shoe man. He'll tell customers up front: "I'm not a clothes man. I don't get clothes. I'll get you shoes and I'll wait on you." In a back room, he has organized the inventory according to his own system: "I put the stock numbers in numeric order," he says proudly. "It makes everything a lot easier."

Certainly it works, for customers readily comment on his masterful command of the inventory. Say a customer comes in, acts serious about buying shoes. He asks for a 9-and-a-half in a certain style, and Jimmy might say, "We're out of 9-and-a-halfs." The customer might be dubious at this declaration and press the inquiry: "Are you sure?" And Jimmy will answer authoritatively, "Trust me. I'm sure." Say the size is available. Jimmy will get the box from the back and give the customer half of the pair to try on. "The other shoe is at the counter," says Jimmy. "Nobody gets a whole pair without paying for them -- that was my idea."

And don't look to him for a deal: "I tell them the prices are already marked down: 'You want the shoes, here they are.' I don't go through all that story-change. I don't talk that stupid stuff. I get to the bottom line, and that's it."

When not handling shoes, he's standing around, almost obscured by the piles of clothing, watching keenly for any sleight of hand that might occur. As far as Jimmy is concerned, every customer is a potential shoplifter. "I keep an eye on everything," he says. "I walk around, watch the people. Every now and then, I catch one red-handed." That explains the handcuffs, but does he make an arrest? "I shouldn't," he admits sheepishly, "but I do."

If his normal attire isn't bizarre enough, there are always the costumes. "He's really striking when you walk in, depending on what he's wearing," says Keith Schildroth, a sportswriter for the Post-Dispatch and longtime Jimmy-watcher. "Some days, he looks like he could be a fire captain, with the pressed white shirt and the captain's hat. Then he'll have the Frank Serpico look, with the 5 o' clock shadow. I've seen him as a boat captain. I've seen him in a gangster outfit, looking like a short George Raft. You look at the guy, and you think: 'What kind of show is this?'"

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