Woodworking again: A letter to Barry about Kaplan Bros.

By Dave Wood
Posted 3/1/23

I wanted to write to thank you for the fine letter to the editor that made reference to Kaplan's Men's Store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, but I didn't manage to find your address, so I decided to send it to you via the Pierce County Journal.

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Woodworking again: A letter to Barry about Kaplan Bros.


To: Barry Barringer

Trenton/Trimbelle Township Line

Pierce County, Wis.

Dear Barry:

I wanted to write to thank you for the fine letter to the editor that made reference to Kaplan's Men's Store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, but I didn't manage to find your address, so I decided to send it to you via the Pierce County Journal.

Barry, you did a fantastic job describing Kaplan's when you said it was “a decrepit building, doomed for urban renewal.”  You wrote that you still “hear the groan of the wooden floor that sloped every which way” and how Kaplan's sold work gloves by the dozen tied in bundles with sturdy white cotton string.

You nailed it alright. And your memories inspired me to sit up and take notice. There's so much to tell, but I'm only going to describe my first trip there. I was working at the Star Tribune when a young man, Steve Kaplan, phoned and told me I should drop over to Franklin Avenue, because he was staging an open house at his family's store to celebrate customers who had been shopping there for 50 years and he wanted a group picture to put on his store's 1982 complimentary calendar.

I drove over to the old pile located in one of the seamiest areas in south Minneapolis, so old and decrepit it made neighboring Lake Street look like the Champs Elysees. It was humming with customers.

Steve told me that his father Joseph and his uncle Jacob had walked across Russia to an embarkation spot in Poland, lived on lard and bread in steerage and finally arrived in the new world, New York, only to find that their father had remarried and his new bride wanted nothing to do with his roughneck sons from the hellhole that was Russia. So that meant another long trek to Minneapolis, where they started the cut-rate clothing store that clad thousands of poor kids and their laboring parents for half a century. The brothers died several years ago but their employees (many of them relatives) hung on. When I arrived, Kaplan clerks, mostly old retirees from their own clothing stores, swarmed around me. They worked solely on commission and hustled old and new customers to pay attention to the sign that hung above them:






The creaky store smelled of leather and wood and offered old fashioned Iceman's pants in sizes up to 50, billowy wool trousers to slip on over long johns. Or felt shoes, the kind my grandpa slipped on over wool socks before he tugged on his four-buckle overshoes—also for sale. Another sign proclaimed, “THE WORLD'S LARGEST SELLER OF WORK GLOVES!

There were buckskin mitts, unlined pigskin gloves, unlined buckskin gloves, cowhide gloves, yellow plastic gloves, women's unlined leather gloves, lined pigskin gloves, calf-suede gloves, bilious green gloves whose fingers were imprinted with yet another message: BETTER AND CHEAPER AT KAPLAN BROS. 15TH AND FRANKLIN


Upstairs in the office, Julius Ostrow explained how Kaplan's operates. “Joe Kaplan was quite a man and not just because he was my brother-in-law. He had a theory. He always said, I am not a store owner. He said my customers are hiring me to be their buyer. He set a low markup and that was it. Even during World War II, when he could have made an extra buck, he never wavered. And he laid a foundation of service. Refunds and exchanges in two minutes, the sign says so downstairs. You never have to look to see that something was right because you know you'll get your money back with no argument. I myself, added Julius, am now waiting on third-generation customers, grandparents first, then parents and now children. It's very gratifying.”'

And so it went on that busy day, as old customers flocked in, some of whom had “graduated” to the suburbs, others who seemed content to stay put in south Minneapolis.  Almost everyone I talked to said if it weren’t for the Kaplan's, they'd have been mighty chilly on Minnesota's frostiest days.

Ostrow told me that the store's policy was always to hire students from nearby Augsburg College and Seminary, “because you could always count on them.” He gave me the name of Pastor Maynord Nelson of Calvary Lutheran in Golden Valley. This is what Nelson told me—which he had earlier shared with his own congregation:

“Funny,” he told me, “that you would call, Dave.  Just last Sunday, I told my congregation that when I was a seminarian my father died in Oregon. At the time I was clerking at Kaplan's. So I had to tell Julius Ostrow that I'd have to take a week off and the reason why.  I had no idea of how to get home, but I had to go. The day before I left, one of the clerks gave me an  envelope. The staff had taken up a collection and there was enough money for airfare. Kaplans really care for the people who work for them. At Christmas there was always a gift—and I hear there still is. Kaplan's never told us what our commission was, but when we were paid, they always gave us more than we thought we'd get. I still go back to see them because it's the only thing in Minneapolis that hasn't changed since I was a student and because they truly put me through seminary. And when it comes to being a pastor, to knowing human nature and how to get along with people, working at Kaplan's was the best course I had  through seminary.”

So Barry, that's my story.  As you suggested in your letter, everyone who lives on this side of the St. Croix, needs a bit of uplifting.

All the best, Dave

P.S. A Minnpost item in 2013, informs us that the Franklin Avenue store burned down in 1988 and relocated to Lake and 15th.  It closed for good in 2013, Feb. 15 at 5 p.m., a victim of changing tastes and warmer weather.

Woodworking again, Dave Wood, Kaplan Bros., Minneapolis, column