“It was never ever just about selling clothes,” Carlo Billinger said ahead of his final days at Rex Cox Men’s Wear.
He’s advised youth on what restaurants to take their first dates, where husbands should buy flowers for their wives, and what suits grieving families should wear to their loved one’s funerals.
“It was about my interactions with my customers, with my friends, I always had the front door open,” Billinger said. “That’s something I’m really going to miss.”
He and his business partner, Ted Buckle, have worked together at the near-century-old store on 1st Avenue for over 50 years, but today (Jan. 14) it passes on to new owners.
The store has been a staple of downtown Mission since it was founded in 1925 by Reginald Cox. When the founder died in 1959, it passed on to his nephew, Buckle’s father Percy.
Buckle said he started working there in 1962 when he was 16-years old; Billinger, his seven years younger neighbour, started in 1969 at the age of 15.
The work stitched the two together through five decades of men’s fashion, ups and downs in the economy, and multiple generations of returning clients.
In those early years, the store used to cash customers’ pay cheques on Fridays because the banks closed at 3 p.m., and had lines of credit with familiar patrons. Things started to change in the 1970s with the arrival of credit cards, shopping malls and big department stores
After Sevenoaks Shopping Centre was built in 1975, Buckle remembers being told that it would mean the death of local small businesses and everything would head to Abbotsford.
“I was always the one who said ‘No, we’re an established store, and we will always be around,’” he said. “And I think we won out.”
That’s not to say they never struggled. Billinger said the business was always a good barometer on how the local economy was fairing.
When he started, Mission’s economy was intertwined with the local lumber industry. Those were “the good times,” he said, but that industry soon began to decline, followed by the local jobs and retail revenues.
“When things were good, we flourished. When things were not so good, it was very tough,” Billinger said. He said they had to open an Abbotsford store in the 1980s “just to survive,” because there was no longer money in Mission.
Percy Buckle retired in 1975 and handed the reins over to his son. Four years later, Billinger bought in.
One could assume the two haberdashers would be best friends after a half century side-by-side, but that’s not the case. They don’t socialize outside of work, and both describe it as a business relationship.
While they used to run the floor and do purchasing together, Buckle – who has some accounting schooling – gradually started to handle the business side and Billinger the social side.
“I look at it as a marriage, where there’s a give and a take,” Billinger said. “We’ve both got our strengths, we both have our weaknesses, and where my weaknesses is his strength, his weaknesses is my strength.
“I love the people and he loves the numbers.”
On Friday, that yin-and-yang relationship comes to a close.
The pair both list age as a factor in their reason to sell, but also changing standards in the industry.
Buckle always kept to the “old way” and never used computers, but purchasing orders has even become too computerized for the more tech-savvy Billinger.
Where once you would pick out products by hand, now you squint and select through a screen.
“You can’t physically touch what you’re buying now,” Billinger said. “I want to see the seams myself, I want to see if the fabric stretches, I want to see how the collars are connected.”
Selling the store in its 97th year leaves both with mixed feelings, but they have confidence in the buyer after holding out for the right person.
The store will move across the street to smaller space, but the Rex Cox “name will live on,” Buckle said, noting that was a non-negotiable for him.