B RATTLEBORO — The sign on the door is gone, the front window displays are bare, and inside, there’s a single lonely clothes rack with only about a dozen garments hanging on it — a couple of sports coats, some shirts and a few pairs of slacks. Empty display tables and shelving cases are scattered about, and on the floor are discarded price tags and labels.
There’s only one person inside, 73-year-old John Wichland. And he’s cleaning up near the big windows in the rear of the building facing the Connecticut River on this June day, one of the most beautiful the region can offer — a cloudless sky and 70-degree temperatures.
He stops what he’s doing and takes a seat at one of the few pieces of furniture left — a small, colorful sofa. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt, jeans and loafers without socks; it’s apparent this man knows how to dress. But then he should; he owned and ran Miller Bros.-Newton men’s clothing store on Main Street here for 23 years, up until last week when he closed it down.
The Keene Miller Bros.-Newton store will remain open.
“I guess you could say it’s kind of sad; I do not like to see small, independent places close up. There is a place for stores like this,” Wichland says of the Brattleboro shop’s closure. His warm smile and easy laugh contradict any feeling of sadness or regret. “It’s been a wonderful run. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
It wasn’t the malls, big box stores or Amazon that led to the store’s closure. In fact, it was doing rather well, he says, with steady local business and a very loyal clientele. Many of them were out-of-state customers who’d stop in regularly while traveling through Brattleboro on their way to the ski resorts or to vacation homes in the region. Rather, Wichland says, he simply wanted to kick back and enjoy a retirement.
“They only got 53 years out of me,” he quips. “There is a time to quit.”
Wichland says the shop’s location near busy Interstate 91, along with support from the town and state, helped it significantly, most notably when Vermont removed the sales tax on clothing and footwear in 2007. He also says the intimate atmosphere of downtown Brattleboro lends itself to smaller stores and restaurants. “There’s a warm feel here,” he notes.
The decision to close the store also dovetailed nicely with his wife Diana’s recent move to close the bed and breakfast she ran, where they lived for the past 20 years — Ranney Brook Farm in West Townshend, about 20 miles from Brattleboro. The B&B is for sale, and the couple is considering moving back to the Keene area, where the two were born and raised.
Wichland gleefully recounts how he and his wife met in Keene. “She was a waitress at Lindy’s Diner, and she was home from college. It took me a few weeks to get the courage to ask her out, and 51 years later, here we are,” he says.
“She wasn’t a very good waitress,” he adds, chuckling, but he obviously didn’t hold that against her. They have three daughters and a son, Ben, of Keene, who has worked at Miller Bros.-Newton’s Keene store for 15 years.
A family business
Wichland is the second youngest of seven children who were all born and raised in Keene, on Adams Street near Wheelock Elementary, though they attended St. Joseph Regional School. His father, William, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian boot maker, had begun working at Miller Bros.-Newton in Keene in 1916 and bought the store in 1947. Back then, it was near the entrance of the Latchis Theatre on Main Street, which is now the location of a Subway sandwich shop. The store moved to where the Apothecary would later do business for many years. In 1981, the clothing store moved once again, to its present location. The Brattleboro store opened in 1995.
Answering a question many in Keene and Brattleboro may have wondered over the years, Wichland explains who the Miller brothers were, and also William Newton. There were three Miller brothers, and each opened a men’s clothing store in the mid-1800s, in Newport and Keene in New Hampshire and one in Springfield, Vt. Newton, a shirt salesman, came into the picture when he married the widow of the Miller brother in Keene. Hence, the addition of the name. In those days, men’s clothing stores were known as haberdasheries.
When Wichland’s father bought Miller Bros.-Newton in Keene, there were seven men’s clothing stores in the city, he says. “Each store had its own loyal clientele — men would say ‘I’m a Miller Brothers man.’ ”
Miller Bros.-Newton is the only one left.
“Everybody in town knew my father. We couldn’t get away with anything; everybody knew we were Bill and Edna’s kids,” Wichland recalls.
“He was a very friendly man. And he always looked perfect; he always wore a suit and tie, and always with a vest. And he wore a boater’s hat — that’s a rigid straw hat with a bright, wide brim,” Wichland explains. It was considered the top in fashion for men in those days, especially for summer wear.
John Wichland and his brothers worked in the store as teenagers, usually on Saturdays, helping with the chores. “My father instilled a great work ethic in all of us, and that has passed down to the next generation,” he says. “We have all been hard workers.”
Wichland’s oldest brother, William 2nd, died when he was a senior in high school, a victim of the polio epidemic. John Wichland and his two other brothers, Robert and David, went into the family business. The business is currently co-owned by John, David and Robert’s son Bruce.
“Our father never pushed us into the business. We all wanted to work in it. We’ve always been very passionate about it,” Wichland says.
That passion has carried through to the next generation of Wichlands.
“You just can’t replace this guy,” Ben says, upon arriving at the Brattleboro store to help remove some of the items and bring them back to Keene.
“He’s the real steward, and how he treats people means a lot to him. He’s lighthearted; I’m going to miss him in the business,” Ben adds, just out of earshot of his father.
Working together in a family business has been a wonderful experience, according to Wichland, and though they have had their disagreements over the years, “when we all came to work the next day, it was over. Being a family business is very special; there is strength in numbers, and we all had the same goal.”
Wichland says he specialized in being the “bean-counter” for the business, “the money guy,” having earned a degree in accounting. Even after stepping away from the day-to-day operations in his retirement, he’ll continue to handle the accounting.
Despite the explosion over the years in online shopping, he notes that with clothing, the Internet has its limits; customers with whom he’s worked prefer to try on garments and feel the quality of the fabric before they buy.
“People come for the service; you can’t tailor anything online. We can do that. We have an excellent tailor at our Keene store.”
Reflecting on his five decades in the business, Wichland says he’s seen men’s fashion change, from the formal style of his father’s generation to the much more casual attire men wear today.
“I liked it when people dressed up more. What’s considered casual now isn’t up to my liking; what people wear today is all over the map,” he says, citing people donning T-shirts in restaurants and even pajama bottoms out in public. Incongruously, the demand for formal men’s suits has been increasing recently, according to Wichland.
“I think men realize that they want to look good for jobs, for job interviews,” he explains, and some occupations lend themselves to suits.
Through it all, he says, Miller Bros.-Newton managed to survive and thrive, during both good and bad economic times. “We managed to get through them all. First there was the Great Depression; my father got through that. Then the recessions came and went, bigger stores came along, then the malls, followed by the big box stores, then the Internet. But we did well despite all those changes.”
Wichland believes the reason for that success is the strength of the family — that they all put their shoulders to the wheel. Plus, there are always customers who appreciate quality merchandise and service and are willing to pay a bit extra for it.
“Back in the day, we worked long hours. if customers came in at closing time, we stayed open to accommodate them. We always went the extra mile. Many a night, dinner at home had to wait.”