ADDRESS: 300 SW Madison Avenue, Corvallis, OR 97333
PHONE NUMBER: 541-757-8070
OWNER: Richard Mehlhaf
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 49
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 4 part-time employees, 1 part-time tailor
WHAT THEY SELL: Men’s clothing and shoes, sportswear
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: For high quality men’s wear and exceptional service provided by experienced staff.
For nearly 50 years, the Mehlhaf family has been a mainstay in Corvallis, providing men of all ages with top-of-the-line suits, sports jackets, shirts, ties, sportswear, and much more. Three generations of Mehlhafs are OSU alumni: current owner Richard attended OSU, his father went to OSC, and his grandfather attended OAC. Richard grew up with Corvallis in the 50s and 60s, and he clearly enjoys sharing stories about his hometown. While other men’s clothing stores have come and gone through the decades, Mehlhaf’s has remained—and there are very good reasons why.
Richard, when and why did you decide to start your business? I grew up in Corvallis and started working for my dad when I was 10 years old, sweeping and working as a box boy at the Gordon Harris campus store at 26th and Monroe. I figured it was better than mowing yards. I got my first paycheck in 1957, but when I discovered it was less than minimum wage, I pointed that out to my dad. He said, “Family doesn’t make minimum wage.” I responded by threatening to leave, and he changed his mind.
We’ve had two stores. The original store was where the Shoe Hutch is now. It opened in 1964, and we were actively involved in renovating that building. It had been a home furnishings store with three fireplaces that had to be removed. I was a senior in high school then, and I took a sledge hammer to those fireplaces. When I got mad about something and hit the wall with the sledge hammer, a piece of the wall came off and my dad saw there was brick underneath. He said, “Hey, that looks pretty neat!” So I had to remove all the cement plaster from the walls. It was a big job.
We opened this store [at the corner of 3rd and Madison] in 1973. My temper got me into trouble again when I was cutting wood as part of the renovation. My dad said, “I want a design in those beams.” So I got mad and cut some grooves in the wood, and he said, “Hey, that looks great! I want you to do that for all of the wood in here.” So the notched beams you see in the store today are the ones that I cut for my dad. Our business cards even have that design on them.
When we went into business in 1964, we were the ninth men’s clothing outlet in Corvallis. Including two department stores, 34 stores selling men’s clothing have come and gone since we opened.
Tell us more about your products. What are your specialties? We’ve carried Pendleton since Day One. That line has really expanded, and they’re seeing a renaissance. Young people are buying Pendleton again—a lot more than in the past few years.
Many of our customers are OSU alumni. We’re really aimed at men 30 years old and up. But back in the 1980s, 60% of our customers were college kids. Now, I’d say that just 3 to 5% are college students. In 1984, we had every hot young men’s sportswear line and were the most popular men’s clothing store in town.
We’re starting to work our way into more technical clothing because of travel. We carry a lot of casual travel wear—like a shirt or coat with pockets for everything, dress slacks that won’t wrinkle, and zip pockets for your wallet or money.
In 1979, I had two full-time tailors, and now I have just one part-time tailor. That shows how many more suits and sports coats I was selling then compared to now. Sportswear is advancing on the clothing and crowding it out. We still sell a lot of dress shirts, though. We appeal to a wider age bracket.
What does being featured as the Local Business of the Week mean to you? It’s an honor. Our 50th anniversary is coming up next year, and I’ve been here nearly every day. When a business has longevity, it tells me that they’ve been taking care of the customer and doing things right. There’s a common thread among all the long-time businesses in the community: customer service and Corvallis-centered products. Seven department stores have come and gone in Corvallis. We have a lot of good independents here. My theory is that Corvallis is real quirky, but also 10 miles from the freeway. Corvallis doesn’t have a major artery, and the big stores like to be close to the freeway. The only time they could sell anything was when it was on sale.
Do you fill an unusual niche? What does your business do better than anyone else? We’ve done tropical shirts for decades. I personally like tropical, and it sells well. I started buying tropical in 1965 or 66—Surfline out of Honolulu. We’ve been carrying tropical on a 12-month basis for the last 10 years or so. It’s still on the floor in the fall and winter because people travel year-round now.
What challenges have you faced as an independent local business owner? The bag ban was a bit of a challenge. It takes some explaining. But I have to say that the City government has been very fair and protective of the downtown. The City doesn’t do special favors for the big companies.
What do you enjoy most about owning a local, independent business in Corvallis? The people contact—by far! My dad used to hire a lot of the college kids. All the stores would hire a high school boy and a couple of college kids. The idea was that they’d attract their friends to the store. Now, I have two guys who work here—Allan Vendetti and Ed DuBois—and they’re a little older than I am. I love the interaction on the floor.
What is your relationship to the community? I was on the Madison Avenue Task Force, and I served on the DCA board, including terms as vice president and president. But I got so involved, I felt like I was penalizing my children. My son was heavily involved in sports, playing both football and soccer, and my daughter was into ballet. If you have children, I think you need to parent them rather than being absent. So I re-focused my time and energy on my children while they were growing up. My dad made the connections in the community, while I stayed and worked in the store. That’s where I’m most active now—in the store.
How important is sustainability to you and/or your business? We were one of the first stores to start recycling soft plastic. A lot of the clothes we sell arrive in very large plastic bags, and some of the clothes are double-bagged. We collect all the plastic in a box and then take it to recycle. Dan Crall [owner of Corvallis Pedicab] helped us get started several years ago, and we were able to take the plastic to First Alternative Co-op. We used to totally fill our trash container, and now we don’t. Republic Services takes all of our paper and cardboard for recycling.
We first started recycling cardboard back in 1964, and my mother was really into it. We would take all of it to a pipe company in south Corvallis. It’s so much easier now that we have the recycling baskets. My trash can has almost nothing in it. We used to empty it every other day. Now, it’s more like every other week.
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – September 1, 2013)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).