Saying farewell to Dell: Columbus’ classic downtown men’s clothing store to close as Tom Dell retires

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Tom Dell talks about this decision to retire and close his business, Dell Brothers in Columbus, Ind., Friday, July 5, 2024. The business was founded in Columbus in 1916 by his grandfather.

The store is decorated, but not cluttered. After 108 years, it’s impressive that three generations knew what should be kept.

In the same spot it has been in since 1916, Dell Brothers has become a fixture of downtown Columbus. The store is like a sunny day on the golf course, a dad getting ready for Sunday services, the week before senior prom. The menswear store has offered more than a century of clothes to southern Indiana.

But Tom Dell is retiring, and that means the store will be retiring, too.

“I thought it was about time,” says Dell. A handful of factors played into his decision, including his age, the death of his brother in November of last year, and the competitive market for retail employees.

The store interior is composed of wood paneled walls, gold light fixtures, and a warm leathery smell, all matched to an orchestra quietly playing from the back.

“Everything has its life cycle, as I always say, and so does the store,” says Dell.

Dell stands in the middle of the store, behind the sales desk. He’s wearing a blue jacket, and dark jeans. Memorabilia that dots the rest of the store seems to congregate at the desk, pictures attached to a wood column and memories out on the desktop. A couple of jars of candy, a few pins from a mayoral campaign, a paperback book with the cover floating open.

“My grandfather always said, which I agree, you will make more friends in this business than customers,” says Dell.

On display are advertisements from the first generation of the Dell Brothers. Original ads, calendars and thermometers. The ads were designed that way so they’d be on display in the home, all year round. Dell says the pieces are from the 1930s and 40s, the first generation of the store. A cardinal on one of the thermometers looks slightly down, “Establish a bond of friendship between this store and your home” beneath it, along with the store’s name.

“Dealing with the friends that we’ve developed over the course of the years has been the real rewarding thing,” says Dell.

Looking at the other pictures, Dell laughs at a postcard someone once gave him – a dog up on a horse holding the reins, with a human slumped over behind him. The caption: Wyoming Designated Driver. Above it is a three panel Dilbert comic, poking fun at office dress codes. Dell said someone brought it in for him, that customers would bring in all kinds of things. Next to that is a picture of five well dressed men, Dell and his late brother Mike included.

On a wood column behind the sales desk, a framed magazine cover featuring Mike and Tom Dell.

“Good business partner,” says Dell, looking at the photo of his brother. He says his brother and dad shared similar traits, and what they might’ve lacked in the ability to sell, they made up for plenty with a talent for management.

“Its been a good run,” says Dell.

When Dell thinks back on challenges the business had faced, he thinks about the Covid-19 pandemic, the boom of big box stores, and the Great Depression.

“Everybody’s got their little challenges, and each generation did, but we were lucky enough that the community supported us, so that we could survive,” says Dell.

Dell says business has been good since the pandemic, but operating a business on his own became more and more challenging, and he knew it was time to let go.

Dell is just as passionate about retail as he is knowledgeable.

Between knowing the history, understanding marketing, and reading trends, Dell’s store has been meticulously curated to keep up with changing times. Even in the age of online shopping, Dell says that obstacle is nothing new, and similarly, his grandparents had to deal with catalogues.

“People still like to come in, and they still like to touch and feel things, but the other thing of it is, they also like to come in and have somebody make them feel like they’re special,” says Dell.

Dell says he offers insight into what to try on, what will fit, and what will looks good, cutting out obstacles men may face while shopping, and in turn, save time and the need for returns. He puts care into this work, care that can’t necessarily be found through a computer screen.

In retirement, Dell is looking forward to spending more time with family, and travelling with his wife Kathy.

“She deserves a real vacation,” says Dell.

Dell is also a member of the Columbus City Council. Hanging at the front of the store are an assortment of polo shirts, with a colorful Columbus logo. On the wall, a Columbus poster, with a handful of city icons pictured. Despite the longevity of the store, and the connection to the city, Dell doesn’t want to overstate his job.

“I don’t think of it bigger than retail. It is still just a retail men’s clothing business,” says Dell.

“I sell clothes,” he says.

He talks a bit about what he might do with some of the ads, bank records obtained a century ago, shirt gift boxes from the 70s, the art in the store.

The art throughout the store is mostly landscape paintings the family had bought from local artists.

One painting in particular stands out. A beautiful lady, with a shiny collie by her side. They’re both overlooking a field, watching cows graze. It’s Tom Dell’s grandmother, the painting commissioned by his grandfather. According to Dell, when his grandfather started the store, she kept the books. In the painting, she’s still on her family’s farm in Cincinnati.

Her gaze falls on not only the fields, but outside of the painting, the entrance to the store.

“Its been pretty cool. Well, a lot of cool. A lot of good history, a lot of good memories,” says Dell.