Staying put Downtown - for three generations

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February 14, 2005 // UPDATED 1:52 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Brian Voerding
Brian Voerding

Nate's Clothing has survived the urban core's decay and resurgence

In 1960, dozens of buildings were razed in a city-funded, large-scale redevelopment project near 2nd Street and Marquette Avenue. The area was mostly a slum, filled with seedy hotels, clubs and bars. Nate's Clothing was there, too, at 205 Marquette Ave. It was the last building standing in the district until it was finally torn down in 1961.

"My dad had a customer from the Bell Phone Company, and they even kept his [phone] service running," said Steve Witebsky.

Steve is the son of Sheldon, who, along with Steve's brother Alan, run the business today.

Though there's no talk of demolishing buildings near Nate's current location at 27 N. 4th St., the 88-year-old store remains, in a sense, one of the last buildings standing. It's a family-owned business (three generations now) and building (28 years and running) in a city where businesspeople from other places own nearly every skyscraper, and condominium developments are filling the skyline.

Alan Witebsky said several developers have expressed interest in purchasing the building, but he recoiled at the thought of selling.

"[Developers] never offer to pay what you feel [the building] is worth. We've held off - this is our home," he said.

Most offers the family receives are simple letters of interest that he said are probably simultaneously distributed to hundreds of other Downtown buildings. Individuals ask, too, though they aren't any more respectful.

"I asked for remuneration from one guy who was interested, and he said he thought I should just give the building to him," Alan said. "We get guys who tell us they think the building is worth $40 a square foot, and we know they'll turn around and want to sell space for $80 a square foot."

But the devotion and respect the Witebskys receive from everyone else is what seems to keep them in business.

"It isn't uncommon for us to be waiting on fourth-generation customers," Alan said.

Alan and Steve's grandfather Nate founded the business in 1916. He was a soft-spoken man who came to Minneapolis from Russia in the late 1800s and worked as an eyeglass lens-grinder until he saved up enough money to open the store. Steve said his grandfather's main business was cleaning and mending lumberjacks' and workers' clothing. Nate would lend them outfits over the weekend while he repaired theirs. He also sold clothes to the poor laborers and migrants that frequented the area. In the early '20s, he made a trip to a clothing store plant in Chicago, where he bought loads of damaged and otherwise inferior items and brought them back to Minneapolis, where he repaired and sold them.

When Nate died in 1958, his son Sheldon took over the store, sometimes working 80-hour weeks, "just trying to get things right," Steve said.

Steve and Alan began helping out soon after.

We both started working at the age of 7 - no kidding," Alan said. "We spent weekends and summers here. Our dad required us to."

Alan said he knew he would work in the business, even from a young age. Steve was less certain and initially taught school, but after a year, he joined Alan in the store's day-to-day operation.

Sheldon bought the five-story building in 1976 and rented space until Nate's moved to the main floor in 1988. The family still rents the remaining floors to variety of other tenants, including Coffee House Press and Millennium Printing and Graphics.

"It's not unusual for us to have tenants long-term," Alan said. "It's real word-of-mouth. We are what we are - we don't try to be a Class A building. It's hard to find space in Minneapolis, and we try to be the cheapest space on 1st Avenue."

Scott Seekins, a local artist who rents a studio in the building, agrees. He calls the building a "rock in the stream" for creative types and said he was lucky to find his space. "I saw the two women [who lived in his space previously] arguing on the balcony one night, so I started calling to see when the space would be available," he said.

And he, like other tenants and clients, said the building - and the owners - foster a sense of community.

"I've gone trout fishing with Alan," Seekins said. "Everyone here knows something about everyone."

"I'll tell you, these are the two nicest guys to work for Downtown," said Jack Spizale, who arranges window displays for Downtown independent retailers, including Nate's.

Employees are commissioned, and many have been at Nate's for decades, such as Morrie Katz, who has served the store for nearly a half-century.

Business has been up and down these last five years, said Alan Witebsky, but he thinks it's about even overall. And for a clothing store these days, he said, even is good business.

"Clothing fell through the floor in the mid-'90s," he said, "but we're starting to see a spike again, a trend toward tailored clothes."

Both Alan and Steve are in their early 40s, and though retirement hasn't yet entered their minds, they know that Nate's time as a family-owned business may be growing to a close.

"We both have children, but I would be surprised if any of them came into the business," Steve said.

"At some point, we'll have to divest," Alan said. "When we started in this business, you could shoot a cannon on 1st Avenue and not hit a soul. Now, Saturday nights around here are crazy."