Oct. 21 2015 11:15 AM

Kositchek's marks 150 years in business

Nobody knows whether Mark Twain stopped by Kositchek’s Clothiers in downtown Lansing when he lectured at Mead’s Hall in 1871, but he could have.

The store will celebrate its 150th birthday — including 146 years in the same storefront at 113 N. Washington Square — on Thursday.

Twain’s hair was still red in 1871. That’s how far back Kositchek’s goes.

One white-haired American legend did stop by on a mid-December afternoon in 2001. At the height of the Christmas rush, Tony Bennett, in town for a gig at the Wharton Center, strolled over from his hotel room. The elegant crooner gave a pat to the store’s longtime greeter, a moppy Schnauzer named Austin, and bought a pair of suspenders.

“People took a second look, but they were respectful,” Kositchek’s owner David Kositchek said. “He was warm and gracious.”

That’s about all the gossip you’ll get from Kositchek about his customers. He started working at the family store in 1962. At 10 years of age, Kositchek worked in the store’s second-floor Boy Scout Trading Post, outfitted to look like a little log cabin.

Discretion is part of the reason Kositchek’s has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the dark-matter tug of the Lansing and Meridian malls and even the rise of casual Friday.

Kositchek doesn’t tell tales about the entertainers, governors, legislators and other luminaries who walk in the door. For one thing, he wants them to keep coming and feel relaxed. More important, Kositchek’s bread and butter doesn’t come from the big shots.

“The majority of our customers are hard-working people,” he said. “People show up on bikes, on motorcycles, in blue jeans, and we love it.”

Now and then, a former customer attending a 40- or 50-year high school reunion will walk into the store, amazed and reassured that it’s still there.

Kositchek and his team of six tailors are like bartenders — except that they pour people, not spirits, into their proper vessels.

“It’s like therapy,” Kositchek said. “They come in, look at the merchandise and the beautiful colors. We give them coffee or tea. They unwind, they come here to break up their day.”

At a low-key celebration from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, the store will mount a display of historic pictures and ads. The ads follow the ups and downs of men’s fashion, from stovepipe hats and frock coats to fedoras, zoot suits, turtleneck sweaters and Arnold Palmer sport shirts. A book chronicling the store’s history will be on sale.

David is the fourth Kositchek in an unbroken line of soft-spoken, gentlemanly owners. His great-grandfather, Henry Kositchek, came to the United States from Austria in the mid-1800s. Henry started in the clothes business at the age of 15, selling millinery supplies out of the back of a wagon. He opened his first store in 1865 at 141 S. Main St. in Eaton Rapids. (Another long-running family business, Pettit Hardware, occupies the spot today.)

Henry knew that Lansing, named the state’s capital city in 1847, was destined to teem with lawmakers and lawyers. Lobbyists would buttonhole lawmakers all day, and somebody would have to provide the buttonholes. He moved his store to its present spot at on Washington Square in 1869, and it’s been there ever since.

The store passed to David’s grandfather, Louis, in 1925, then to David’s father, Richard, in 1975. David took over after his father’s death in 1997.

David was very close to his grandfather, also known as “Mr. K.”

David Kositchek
Kim Kauffman Photography

“He was kind and softspoken, just a lovely human being,” Kositchek said.

As a tyke, David visited Louis and played in the front yard at the storybook house Henry commissioned from the city’s leading architect, Darius Moon, at 514 N. Capitol Ave. Henry and Louis both walked to work from that house, which was eventually demolished by Lansing Community College to make way for Dart Auditorium.

David can’t recall an unkind word from his father or grandfather.

Then, as now, employees were lifers who racked up 20 or 30 years before retiring.

“It was always a congenial, family atmosphere,” Kositchek said.

In its early years, Kositchek’s wasn’t the lonely retail oasis it later became.

“Department stores, coffee shops, theaters, family-owned restaurants,” Kostchek said, ticking off the businesses of bygone bustle. “Everybody came downtown.”

Kositchek said it doesn’t exactly feel great to be the last man standing. He tipped a melancholy hat to several downtown business leaders of his youth, all gone from the scene. These include Betty Price, the owner of Lieberman’s boutique on Washington Square, Ange (Angelos) Vlahakis, owner of Jim’s Tiffany Place restaurant at 203 S. Washington Square, and James Stajos, who invested $100,000 in 1961 to convert the abandoned Capitol Theatre into a popular restaurant, the Eagle.

“I saw how they related to their customers,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

One entity that gets no credit from Kositchek is the City of Lansing.

“The city has thrown so many obstacles in front of us and they continue to do so,” he said.

Discreet as ever, Kositchek declined to go into much detail. But one period of the store’s history ruffles his tailors’ sang-froid.

From the mid-1970s to 2005, an urban renewal scheme replaced the street and parking spaces in front of Kositchek’s with a pedestrian mall lined by concrete sculptures.

“There was a concrete mall in front of our store for about 30 years,” Kositchek said. “Downtown made it very difficult for people to get to us, but we just dealt with it. Loyal customers just parked further away and walked to the door."

In the store’s best years, David’s father and grandfather resisted the temptation to expand, an urge that led to bloat and bust for many retail stores. When regional shopping malls sucked customer dollars to the east and west in the 1970s, Richard turned down several offers to move to the suburbs.

“There was no angst,” Kositchek said. “He believed that the quality shopper will come downtown.”

Kositchek’s: 150 Years and Still Counting

5-8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 FREE Kositchek’s 113 N. Washington Square, Lansing (517) 482-1171, kositcheks.com