Bernard’s Store for Men has stood in the heart of downtown Jasper, Ala., for nearly 70 years, the retail anchor of a town built on coal. Located on the town square in the shadow of Walker County’s historic court house, Bernard’s is a place to find timeless men’s fashion –crisp button-down dress shirts, suits, blue blazers with brass buttons, colorful ties and shoes shined to a high gloss.
But beyond regimental stripes and pressed cotton khakis, there are truths even more timeless than traditional men’s wear.
And that’s why Bernard’s isn’t just a clothing store, but a gathering place, where on hot days, friends can talk while sipping chilled Cokes in the classic eight-ounce bottles. On winter days, hot coffee and homemade cookies fuel conversation on who was sick, who had passed away, who was getting married, or divorced, football or politics. It is the true currency of a small town.
While conversation –and commerce — matter, the lifeblood is love and kindness.
And yes, there are lessons here – first taught by the store’s founder, Bernard Weinstein for your community bank on how to make your business a place of warmth and welcome. Weinstein died in 1980, 31 years after opening his doors for the first time.
Today- and since 1988 – Rusty and Elizabeth Richardson, have been the keepers of Bernard’s lesson. Weinstein hired Rusty when the latter was 16. Richardson became Weinstein’s protégé and bought the store in 1988.
“Bernard was Mr. Jasper to me,” Rusty said. “He was a great mentor to me. He believed wholeheartedly in carrying the best merchandise and standing behind it and offering the best customer service that anyone could offer.”
Weinstein also taught lessons as timeless as a pair of saddle oxfords.
“He taught me about people. He genuinely loved people. He was concerned with what they were doing. He ingrained that in me – to really take the time to enjoy people and talk to them and find out what was going on in their lives,” Rusty Richardson said.
Richardson recalled perhaps Bernard’s most valuable lesson. The store counts the late comedian and television star George “Goober” Lindsey and Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine among its clientele. But every client always received VIP treatment at Bernard’s. And still does.
“Bernard used to say, ‘Rusty, when that front door opens, don’t you dare assume a first impression about anybody. You treat that person as nice and kind as you possibly can. And the next person that walks in, you treat them exactly the same way. Don’t think that someone else was higher and mightier and that the next person was going to spend more money. You treat everyone as nice and as kind as you possibly can. Give them the best service you could. People will come back if they think they’re getting a good, top quality piece of merchandise and they were treated right and had a good, fun experience in the store.’”
What do the lessons Bernard Weinstein imparted to his young protégé have to do with your community bank? Let’s review:
- Treat every customer, whether in worn overalls or a freshly-pressed suit, the same. Kindness. Dignity. Respect.
- Acknowledge every client that comes through your door.
“When they come into your business you’ve got to acknowledge them,” Richardson said. “I’ve been in places over and over where you walk in and won’t get spoken to. But you’ve got to stop what you are doing and acknowledge people. Don’t be sitting there looking at your telephone. Acknowledge people. Be kind to people. Smile.”
- Care about community. Weinstein was active in the local Chamber of Commerce, something Richardson carries on to this day. Throughout its history, the store has supported high school and college activities through advertising, buying season tickets, etc. An example of Weinstein’s commitment are the home side seats at Jasper (formerly Walker) High School’s football stadium. Weinstein helped spearhead the fundraising effort for the seating.
- Make people comfortable. “Bernard was of the opinion that when people were relaxed and comfortable and felt good that they were in a better frame of mind and had a better attitude and didn’t have any pressure on them, across the board, people would buy more if there was a relaxed atmosphere “He wanted that store to be a ‘Come in; make yourself at home, down-home kind of atmosphere. Yeah, sure, he wanted to sell you something, but he took time to talk to you. If you wanted to look and be left alone, you could do that all day long. It didn’t matter. That happens to this day.”
- Be available. Just as Bernard’s offers a welcoming space for folks to come visit over icy cold drinks or steaming, rich coffee. Your bank can offer a space for civic boards and other organizations. It’s all about investing in community.
- Celebrate tradition. Bernard’s walls are filled with photos of local sports heroes of days past, antiques from a simpler time and other relics honoring the past of a town that former U.S. Speaker of the House William Bankhead and his famous actress daughter Tallulah called home.
- Mentor, encourage and treat employees like family, just as Bernard Weinstein treated 16-year-old Rusty Richardson back in 1974. That goes back the Bernard’s bottom line that Weinstein set long ago, and Rusty Richardson firmly follows nearly seven decades later.
“It goes back to supporting and encouraging and loving people. That’s the bottom line: Encouraging each other and loving each other and giving God all the thanks for it.”
And there’s a final lesson. The store has weathered flush times, like in the days after World War II, or these days, as downtown Jasper has seen a revival of business along the Square. And there have been hard times, during coal strikes or layoffs, or the financial crisis of 2008. Still, the Bernard’s philosophy of caring endured.
“As long as you treat people great, as great as you possibly can you’re going to have success,” Richardson said. “That’s how we weathered the storm through those tough times because of our loyal friends and customers who continued to shop with us.”
And every day, it seems those faithful customers whose families have shopped at Bernard’s for generations, affirm for Richardson that he followed the right career calling. He remembered a time a few weeks ago when he helped a young man with Down Syndrome get dressed to the nines for a special prom at Jasper High, or the family that needed a new suit to dress a loved one who had passed on. Richardson and his wife Elizabeth took time to drive across the county to deliver the new clothes to the funeral home. At Bernard’s things like that aren’t attempts to get a pat on the back, but privileges, opportunities to serve.
“Every week it happens — being able to reach out and help people and give back. That happens all the time,” Richardson said. “Those instances make my job so rewarding, so rewarding.”
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