Folding Clothes

Rudolph's dry-goods store closes its doors

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Dan Porter walks up to a counter cluttered with papers and underwear, then hands Dave Rudolph an old shoebox with three pairs of socks inside. The socks are cotton-terry knit, white but slightly yellowed at the no-bind ribbed top, where an adhesive label has bound them together in dry-goods matrimony for who knows how many years. The label says that these socks are ideal for folks with outdoorsy professions, such as longshoremen, lumberjacks and tree surgeons. Porter is indeed qualified to purchase these fine socks at a mere dollar a pair. He is a maintenance worker at the St. Louis Zoo, and he has visited this store many times before, buying not only work socks but pants, T-shirts, underwear, bandanas and what-have-you, the entire blue-collar ensemble.

"This is the most enjoyable store in St. Louis," Porter offers. "There's a good feeling here, real relaxed. They have novel clothes, good quality, and every now and then you can find a shoebox from 1957." Off in the wilderness of boxes and shelving, Porter found the small cardboard box that now holds the socks. It once contained a new pair of Step-Master shoes, size 6, and it is illustrated with pictures of boys and girls dressed up as cowboys, aiming six-shooters at imaginary bad guys. This isn't your average shoebox: The clever container has little cutout lines all over it and announces that it can be converted to "a box game for two."

Porter nods familiarly at Dave, sitting on a stool, a wizened figure wearing an almost beatific look. "He always put up with us as kids," remarks the redheaded zoo worker. "We used to come in and tear the place up."

Funny -- the place still looks torn up. Well, at least delightfully disheveled. Rudolph's Dry Goods has been in the same location on North Gore Avenue in Old Webster since 1946, which means at least two generations have walked the aisles, rummaging through the shelves for deals on Levi's, Dickies and Carhartt clothing. With the store's wood floors, tin ceiling and lack of any modern appurtenances, these customers were well aware, and no doubt happily so, that they were light-years away from the soulless and calculated design space of, say, a Gap or an Eddie Bauer. On wooden shelves so high a ladder is needed to reach the top, duds are piled up in an order known only to Dave, his helper, Bollie, and certain savvy longtime customers. We're talking work pants, casual pants, bib overalls, denim work shirts, Western shirts, insulated canvas work jackets, vests with lots of pockets, briefs, long johns and, hell, nearly every species of dry good known to man.

This hodgepodge is at times mystifying. In one corner, for example, is a large glass case with nothing in it but a straw hat and a cracked-with-age box of "Bachelor's Friend Guaranteed Sox." In the front window, a space normally reserved to showcase the store's best-selling wares, lie caps and hats all thrown together, as if they had tumbled out of a box, left like orphans. Finally there are two hand-scrawled signs on the storefront windows for the benefit of the reading public. The smaller of the two, penned in Dave's crabbed handwriting, reads, "Mrs. Rose Rudolph, wife of Dave Rudolph, passed away Friday, Nov. 2, 1990." The other sign -- a banner, actually -- reads, "Going Out Of Business Sale." Yes, the store that time forgot is about to roll over, about to join the ranks of other beloved bygone culturally significant enterprises -- Irv's Good Food, the Arena, the Parkmoor, the Admiral when it was seaworthy. Rudolph's Dry Goods has a deadline of July 31.

At least the new owners are from the neighborhood. Rudolph's was purchased by McCaughen & Burr, a modest little gallery and frame shop two doors down and one of the oldest businesses of its kind in St. Louis. McCaughen & Burr needed to expand. Was it a hard decision to sell the store he has operated for 54 years? "It was easy," says Dave without hesitation. "There was no hard thinking at all. Business was down; there was a good offer. That was it."

At least Dave will not be shooed from his longtime perch, his apartment above the dry-goods store, where he once lived with Rose and now feeds three stray cats that keep him company in the evening. "It is in the sale contract that I can still stay in my quarters as I always did," he says. About the time of Dave's return home from Europe as a veteran of World War II, his parents had bought the store, then a Piggly Wiggly market. The family converted it into a dry-goods store and moved in. They didn't have far to move; they lived only a half-block to the north on Gore, down near the railroad tracks.

Dave left the soldiering behind him. He worked the store, got it off the ground. It wasn't easy. People were set in their ways; they didn't care to purchase any newfangled brands of clothing. For instance, when the Williamson-Dickie salesman came calling, hoping to debut the line, Dave decided to oblige him. But the clothes just sat on the shelves, staring at him. "People didn't want Dickies," recalls Dave. "The name just didn't hit 'em." But how things change. Fast-forward to the late '70s and early '80s: Rudolph's was the cool place to shop, and the big drawing card was Dickies pants. In fact, Rudolph's was the only place you could get the flat-front pant, which came in not only the standard khaki, navy and black but also the hip hues of yellow, green, red and pink. Fueled by word of mouth, the place at times was wall-to-wall with high-school kids.

"We sold them for $9.99," says Dave to a small group gathered around the checkout counter on a recent rainy Saturday. "Oh yeah," chimes Bollie, whose real name is Phillip Wright. "There were crowds of people waiting outside for us to open -- lines all around the front door, remember that? There were 11 of us working here then."

A neighborhood kid (both he and Dave attended Webster High, about 50 years apart), Bollie came along in 1977, "straight out of high school -- been here 24 years. Mr. Rudolph taught me everything I know about the clothing business, and now I'm better than him." Dave and Bollie are undoubtedly one of the great odd couples of St. Louis retail. Dave is soft-spoken, deliberate and courteous; Bollie comes on strong, enjoys bragging and employs verbal abuse as a form of communication. It's hard sometimes to tell when he's kidding and when he's not. Physically, they are opposites. At 90, Dave is slight of build, with chest hair poking up from the top of his T-shirt, more hair coming out of his ears and eyebrows like the business end of a straw broom. Bollie, with his shaved head and bulked-up torso, is smooth and muscular. He could lift Dave with one arm. In the animal world, Dave would be a groundhog and Bollie would be a bull, a black bull. Dave is as white as Bollie is black.

"I think of him as my father," says Bollie of Dave. "I call him my white daddy."

Says Dave of Bollie: "He is a very good salesman, but emotional. He gets worked up, and you ain't supposed to do that with customers."

Smartly attired in a Dickies poplin pant, Elder shirt and Dickies cap, Dave sits in front of some wooden shelving holding various cardboard boxes, the contents of which are cataloged in Dave's handwritten scrawl: "lo-rise brief," "slim guy boxers," "gripper boxers." Ouch, that last one might hurt. A woman comes in, says she wants the Carhartt bibs for her boyfriend. Says she hasn't been here for 20 years, but it's no different. Dave doesn't have what she needs, but he will order it by catalog. Meanwhile, he makes a gift certificate on a sheet of notebook paper.

Though Rudolph's is not a cash-only store, as some believe -- personal checks and credit cards are accepted -- Dave does have a curious way of conducting transactions. For one thing, nothing is priced. You bring the item to him, and he tells you the cost. If it's a "big-ticket item," he'll show you the cost as listed in the catalog, and then he'll do some ciphering on the adding machine and arrive at a figure that's a few bucks above the cost. And never mind the cash register. Dave has a wad of bills in his pocket that he makes change with. But in case any strong-arm fellas get ideas about knocking over a little old man and taking his dough, all the discouragement they'll ever need is found in the hulking presence of Bollie.

As for the future, Bollie is undecided. He says he's had employment offers from customers. Meanwhile, he'll check on Dave regularly. And Dave will go on living upstairs and keep feeding the stray cats. "I need to tell these people," he says, suddenly recollecting. "Sometimes a cat gets in the store, and they may have to shoo him out."

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