Dell Bros.: Tailor-made for a century of success

The following farewell to the community, written by a downtown business proprietor, was published in the Evening Republican on March 27, 1916:

”Having sold my clothing business to the firm of Dell Bros. of Cincinnati, who will continue at the same location in a high plane of character and up-to-date methods, I hearby bespeak for them pleasant relations and business interest to this community.” — J.L. Gysie

It was those “pleasant relations” that took center-stage Thursday as several dozen people gathered at 416 Washington St. to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dell Bros. in downtown Columbus.

“That is truly a remarkable achievement,” Columbus mayor Jim Lienhoop said. “I think you can count on one hand how many businesses have stayed in the same family for that long.”

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Although Tom Dell was in early grade school when co-founder Charles F. Dell (1886-1960) died, he said he still recalls his grandfather’s advice that if you don’t make friends in business, you are not going to make customers.

“To a large degree, this isn’t about our 100 years,” Dell said. “It’s a celebration of how this community has supported and embraced us for a century. That’s the reason we are still here.”

But those friendships would have never materialized if they had not been well-earned and deserved, said Jeff Baker, who opened the nearby Baker’s Fine Gifts and Accessories in 1984.

“In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing,” Baker said. “But the Dells helped me put it to fruition. Tom has always been someone I could talk to about handling challenges. I will never be able to repay the family’s kindness.”

Expressions of affection and goodwill were evident outside the business, where most of Thursday’s celebration took place.

When the original Dell Bros. — Charles, Nicholas and William — first opened their store 100 years ago, they billed themselves as practical tailors while holding a grand opening sale featuring such bargains as shirts for 69 cents, as well as one-dollar hats, according to archived 1916 advertisements.

For decades, Charles and Winifred Dell, who served as bookkeeper, would walk from their home near Fifth and California streets every morning, work until noon, close the shop, walk back to their home for lunch, walk back and continue working until 7 p.m., current co-owner Mike Dell said.

But on Friday nights, when newly paid factory workers and farmers came to town, the Dells would reopen immediately as theaters such as The Crump, Mode and Rio completed their final showings.

The Dells not only did business but got involved helping others prosper in Columbus as well.

Ten years after coming to town, Charles F. Dell was elected president of what is now the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

The partnership between the original three brothers continued until William Dell died on Christmas Day, 1947. Nicholas Dell would sell his interest to his surviving brother before he died in 1957, almost 10 years to the day after William Dell’s passing.

A few years after the store opened, Charles and Winifred Dell’s only child, Charles E. “Chuck” Dell, was born in 1918.

Growing up Catholic in the 1920s and during the Great Depression was not always easy for Chuck Dell, his son Mike said.

For example, persons of his faith were not allowed to be buried in the Columbus city cemetery, which eventually led to the creation of Garland Brook Cemetery.

However, the teen did enjoy privileges not available to most children, such as being sent to an upscale Illinois prep school and getting his law degree from Notre Dame in 1941.

But just as Chuck Dell began practicing law in Hammond, he was drafted into a military service during World War II. While he would return to Columbus after the war with the goal of resharpening his legal skills, another future was ahead for Chuck Dell.

After marrying Peggy Lucas nine months after their first meeting in 1947, his father asked him to assist him with the men’s clothing store.

Although Chuck Dell was given the opportunity to practice corporate law with Hamilton Cosco, Inc. (now Dorel Juvenile Group), he felt an obligation to his family for — among other reasons — the valuable private education he received in his youth.

While he originally agreed to work in the store as a temporary career move, Chuck Dell’s business connections and community involvement became increasingly important to him.

And as he watched his diabetic father’s health slowly deteriorate over several years, Chuck Dell eventually made a decision to give up law and make retail management his career in the mid-1950s.

By hiring store managers and employees, Chuck Dell also found he had more time to spend with his wife and five children: Tom, Mike, Colleen, Nick and Rob.

For a while, it looked like a lucrative decision.

During the late 1950s, competitor Dalton and Payne decided to stop carrying a particular brand of working man denims.

As a result, Dell Bros. found themselves the exclusive dealer of Levi blue jeans in Bartholomew County — which resulted in skyrocketing profits in the 1960s and provided the incentive to open three other stores.

But with the development of malls and shopping centers, the family owned business lost their Levis exclusivity by the early ’70s.

Although the introduction of leisure suits did much to help pick up business in that decade, Chuck Dell knew their popularity would be nothing more than a temporary fad.

As the 20th Century was coming to an end, the store would profit from other fashion trends that included Izod, Johnny Carson, and Tommy Hilfiger clothing — only to see their market share eroded by new outlet malls and superstores.

The Seymour operation was closed in the 1980s after 15 years of operation when Chuck Dell realized his Columbus store was his main competitor.

But less than 20 years after his sons, Mike and Tom Dell, took over the business, they were forced to make tough decisions during the 2008 recession.

The Lafayette facility was closed after 30 years in operation, due largely to increased competition.

The 25th Street Shopping Center location, opened in 1970, was closed due to the necessity of consolidating local operations.

Chuck Dell died at the age of 80 on New Year’s Day in 1999, but his widow, Peggy, survives.

At age 100, the downtown Dell Bros. store survives in part by offering a more upscale line of men’s clothing, as well as providing individualized services not available at most of their competitors, Mike Dell said.

However, his brother insists a more significant reason is that nobody loses sight of what his grandfather taught them.

“We’ve never really had customers,” Tom Dell said. “We’ve just had friends.”

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1916: Three brothers from Cincinnati — Charles, Nicholas and William Dell –- announce they have acquired a men’s clothing store in Columbus formerly operated by J.L. Gysie.

1947: William Dell dies on Christmas Day. A short time later, Nicholas sells his share of the business to surviving brother Charles.

1954: Charles Dell’s son, Chuck Dell, assumes ownership from his ailing father.

Early 1990s: In a gradual transition, two of Chuck Dell’s sons, Tom and Mike, acquire full ownership of the men’s clothing store.