DANVERS — In 2008, with Wall Street teetering on meltdown, unemployment rising, and the economy tanking, who would expand a one-of-a-kind retail clothing store that had been around for 63 years?
Robert Gibeley and his son Alan, that’s who. They held a grand opening of their relocated men’s clothing store, Giblees, on Route 114 in Danvers, minutes from two sprawling shopping meccas, the Northshore and Liberty Tree malls. Two months later, Giblees hosted an Italian Day, featuring imported designer lines alongside shiny Maseratis to wow shoppers, who also could sip espresso and munch on Italian pastries at the store’s granite-topped bar.
Today, Giblees thrives in a stagnant economy because of a simple business philosophy that Alan Gibeley, 45, spelled out: client relationships, service, and quality product.
“We assess a person’s needs and don’t push anything on them,” he said. “We have great clients who become not just clients, but become our friends.”
This symbiosis, in part, explains Giblees’ appeal and loyal client base. In the 1940s, when Joseph Gibeley opened his Joe the Hatter shop in Salem, he catered to the needs of workers in the many factories by selling fundamental and ever-popular felt hats along with small-item accessories. But he never envisioned his small haberdashery would become a fashionable clothier over the next two generations.
A family story, Alan recounted, tells how the store’s name was morphed into Giblees. “When Joseph was going to hang the new logo in Salem, the ‘y’ would have hung down so low it would have almost bumped people in the head entering. My grandfather dropped the ‘y’, switched the ‘e’ and added the ‘s.’ ”
Joseph Gibeley’s son, Robert, now 79, joined the business in 1951. “I saw hats weren’t our future so I introduced clothing,” Robert said, nattily dressed for work recently in a dark, stylish suit and stunning gold necktie, a pin stuck in his lapel in case he needs to mark an alteration. “We did, and it worked out well. Here we are today.”
As the popularity of felt hats faded, Giblees ramped up its clothing lines. In the early ’70s, Robert opened a second store in the then-new Liberty Tree Mall, the North Shore’s first enclosed shopping complex, in nearby Danvers. With commerce shifting to the mall, the family closed the Salem shop. Giblees remained mall tenants for 25 years.
Meanwhile, Alan, one of 13 children, began to help out after school and during summers. He learned the clothing business from the ground up. After graduating from Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, he went off to study at Syracuse University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in retail and marketing while continuing to work part time at the store during vacations.
But rather than joining the family business after graduation, he wanted to spread his wings and gain the perspectives of other retail operations. Among his positions, he worked at Filene’s Basement as a department manager for two years.
“I wanted to get other experience before I went back to the family business. My intention was always to come back to Giblees,” he said.
He returned in 1995. Commercial development along Route 114 was on the upswing, and the Gibeleys wanted an identity beyond the mall. They opened a stand-alone store in 1997 in rented space and continued to grow their business.
In 2008, they purchased the building, expanding their retail space to 11,000 square feet, and added a tuxedo sales and rental component.
“We had so much confidence,” Robert said. “Route 114 was starting to explode with development. There was a lot of traffic. I didn’t think it was a gamble at all.”
Then the financial crisis struck and business confidence quickly eroded. “We weathered it by knowing our customers’ needs and having the merchandise here when they came in to shop,” Robert said. “But we had a couple of tough years.”
Giblees presents special events to create buzz and draw new business several times a year, and rents space to a bridal boutique, Bella Sera Bridal, to complement the tuxedo business. Attractions have included Scotch tasting, Italian auto night, and Tommy Bahama night. Featured celebrities have included Rob Gronkowski, Adam Vinatieri, Jim Rice, Ray Bourque and Billy Costa. Recently, to introduce the new Robert Graham line, a New York band played on a stage assembled in the store. Davio’s provided appetizers.
In 2011, after 60 years as a clothier, Robert officially retired. Family and friends packed the store to wish him well. When the cheering stopped, however, he faced a lot of time on his hands.
“I asked myself: What am I going to do at home?” Robert said.
He continues to come in just about every day even though, he said with a smile, “They really wanted me to stay out of here.” He will turn 80 on Christmas Eve.
“Manufacturers will call and ask if we would like to try a new product, such as a gold-threaded necktie,” Robert said. “The challenge is to try new products and try to sell them. It gives me great pleasure.”
General manager Bob Brennan, who joined the staff eight years ago after many years in chain store retailing, said, “Giblees has a completely different feel from the traditional department store. There aren’t too many independents left. Even Newbury Street in Boston doesn’t have as many quality shops that it was famous for.”
Alan Gibeley plans to continue with the personal touch. “Our clients are so appreciative of what we do for them,” he said. “When people are happy and pleased, it makes us happy. That’s what is the best part . . . having such phenomenal relationships with hundreds of people on the North Shore.”
Robert G. Pushkar can be reached at robertpushkar@ comcast.net.