The year was 1923.
Insulin was first introduced for the treatment of diabetes; the first home game was played at the original Yankees Stadium; Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille gave us the epic “The Ten Commandments” – and Charles Block established Charles X Block’s on Broad Street in Tamaqua.
Through two world wars, the Great Depression, recessions and the exodus of retail stores from downtown to suburban malls and back again, the men’s clothing retailer has survived and continues to thrive.
“I don’t know why we were fortunate enough to survive, when other retail stores have closed,” said Ralph Richards, owner since 2011, when he bought the store and building from Ted Block, Charles’ son. “Ted said that this store was built on providing excellent customer service, and it’s that experience we never want to lose and what accounts for our longevity.”
Richards had been Ted Block’s physical therapist for 18 years when Block offered the business to him, saying, “You are the perfect personality to carry on our legacy.”
With little knowledge of men’s fashion, Richards worked closely with Block for eight months, learning the ropes.
When he took over, he honored Block’s only requests: Don’t change the name – the X is a great conversation-starter, and no, it doesn’t stand for anything; don’t change the customer experience; anything bought in the store is tailored for free.
GROWING INTO ITS SECOND CENTURY
“When customers come in, we greet them and assist them throughout the buying experience,” Richards said. “We don’t just sell, we educate.”
Richards has, however, expanded that educational experience to include a larger variety of merchandise and updated the store’s physical appearance to what he calls “simple yet elegant.”
Four fitting rooms also were added in the store’s 2,200 square feet.
The emphasis has always been on formal wear – tuxedos and suits – and over the past few years Richards added men’s athletic wear, coats, sweaters and more by popular brands Dockers, Nike, Bass and Eddie Bauer.
A selection of women’s wear and accessories occupies one corner of the store and has been embraced by old and new clients alike, although Richards was sensitive to how it might affect the store’s legacy.
NEW INVENTORY, NEW CUSTOMERS
One style of suit and one price point characterized the merchandise when Richards took over. He quickly introduced three levels of product, “so that almost anyone can find the price point at which they feel comfortable,” he said.
The investment in inventory has resulted in an influx of new clients, according to Richards.
“We’re no longer just your grandfather’s store,” he said. “We had such loyal customers, but knew we needed new ones, too.”
Some of the changes include catering to the younger generation – slim-fit clothing with tapered pants and skinny ties, what he calls “Manhattan-esque.”
Another way Richards builds his client base is bringing the store to the customer.
In the spring, he and his daughter (who is 17 and offers the young men advice on color and style) visit local high schools with sample prom jackets.
He does the measurements on-site over the three-week-long prom season, and the boys try on jackets and settle up there or visit the store.
“We do hundreds of tuxedos in that time,” he said. “It’s a way to keep growing while giving outstanding customer experience. We meet people where they are.”
According to Ben Turrano, the vice president of Tamaqua’s Chamber of Commerce, and a part-time employee of the store, said Charles X Block’s has a great reputation as a heritage business and landmark.
“It’s unique,” he said. “A holdover from a bygone era when these types of shops were the mainstay for these small towns and provided services for the residents brought in by the coal industry.”
There are several staffers at the store, including Richards’ wife and business partner, Jeanette, while all five of their children have helped in the business, too. They kicked off the 95th anniversary year with a customer appreciation event in November. This summer, they plan a birthday party at which Ted Block will be the guest of honor.
DOWNTOWNS HAVE MOMENTUM
Charles X Block’s and other stores that survived the 1960s and ’70s, when suburban malls took business away from downtowns, are coming back.
“The pendulum has swung the other way, and people thrive on the downtown feel,” Turrano said. “This store means a lot to people. Older men reminisce about their first visit and now bring their grandsons. That type of continuity is an anomaly in today’s world.
“We have touched everyone’s lives in some capacity and we remember their names, sizes and stories. We’re a fixture.”