A measuring tape dangles from a nearby clothing rack at Bill’s Toggery in downtown Shakopee. But chances are, Bill Wermerskirchen won’t need it.
With a quick glance, he knows the width of a customer’s waist. It’s a skill he says only comes with decades of selling trousers.
“I don’t know anything else,” said Wermerskirchen, 69, who took over the men’s clothing store from his father in 1978. “This is all I do.”
Since 1931, Bill’s Toggery has been largely a family affair, owned and operated by two — and soon to be three — generations of Wermerskirchens. While big-box retailers across the country have put many independently owned clothing shops out of business during that time, Wermerskirchen’s store has survived through a mix of hard work, speedy and specialized customer service and a small-town charm that suburban fringe cities like Shakopee fight to preserve.
Even the name “Toggery,” is a bit unique, dating back to the mid-19th century as a term for formal attire.
Wermerskirchen said the business has thrived largely by branding itself as a multigenerational personal shopping experience. He said he has found success by providing top-notch customer service to older men accompanied by sons and grandsons who often become regulars and remain loyal for life.
“I might not see that kid back for 10 years, but now he knows what a good shopping experience is,” Wermerskirchen said.
Wermerskirchen’s son and longtime store manager, Billy, will become the third-generation Wermerskirchen to run the business when he takes over Jan. 1.
To celebrate, the Wermerskirchens have been holding a retirement sale that started in early November and will run through Christmas. On the sale’s first day, customers lined up outside the store for more than five hours to say goodbye to Bill Wermerskirchen.
“It was astonishing to see the people come out,” said Shelly Brinkhaus, a business partner and operator of a connected alteration shop. “It was truly a testament to his longtime customer service.”
Hankies and hats
Bill Wermerskirchen’s father opened the store, just a few blocks off the banks of the Minnesota River, more than 80 years ago as a dry-cleaning business that sold hankies and hats up front. Over time, he bought out the neighboring bar and grocery to expand.
With more space, the elder Wermerskirchen stocked a full selection of fine clothing. In 1976, the family sold its rights to the drycleaners and continued leasing the space to a new owner, who kept it operating. Once Wermerskirchen added a tailor to the mix, Bill’s Toggery became a one-stop shopping destination for men.
Billy Wermerskirchen watched his father restore many of the building’s original features while helping out in high school. It was there, just beneath his grandfather’s massive portrait in the store’s Big and Tall section, where he watched his father work and where he picked up some of dad’s sales touch.
Over time, the younger Wermerskirchen became the store’s merchandise buyer and floor salesman. When customers called looking for a suit, Billy Wermerskirchen would tell them to stop in for a fitting. Even if they didn’t buy something, he wanted them to be educated about what they should be looking for.
“If I can get people in the front door, we usually can win them over,” he said.
Once a month, Trent Palmer makes the 45-minute drive from White Bear Lake to Bill’s Toggery to check out the Big and Tall selection. Usually, he’s alone. But on a recent afternoon, he brought a friend who’d never been in the store.
Bill Wermerskirchen greeted Palmer by name. When he heard Palmer’s friend mention he was planning a trip to Las Vegas, Wermerskirchen offered to show him a tan sport coat.
“I was going to buy a recliner today, but I might have to buy a jacket,” the friend hollered to Palmer as he tried on a leather jacket and checked himself out in a three-way mirror.
By the time the men left, Palmer’s friend had spent $700 on clothes.
Shakopee City Administrator Mark McNeill said independent retailers like Bill’s Toggery are destination shopping spots for out-of-towners like Palmer.
“I think as a community, that’s something a lot of people value,” said McNeill, who added the store is consistently praised for its specialized service and convenience.
Even McNeill says he shops there, “as often as my wife tells me I need clothes.”
In addition to suits, sport coats and trousers, the store carries shoes, tuxedos and sportswear. Men can get anything from size 64 belts to Teflon-coated wool suits — a sale Bill Wermerskirchen loves to make because it gives him a chance to show off the suit’s ability to shed water.
“There isn’t anything I don’t have,” he boasts.
Salesman Dave Hedman said Bill’s Toggery has an advantage over larger chain clothing stores because service is speedy and specialized. Winning customers’ trust is what keeps them coming back, Hedman said, and what’s allowing the younger Wermerskirchen to expand the business further.
“I’m sure my dad thought I did a better job than he did,” said Bill Wermerskirchen, who plans to help his son around the store now and then. “And [Billy] is doing better than me.”