Barry Bonoff was a venerable Twin Cities retailer who overcame the tough times with humor and service to others.
Bonoff, who died recently at 91, was longtime owner of women's clothier Jackson Graves — and also found ways to serve his community throughout his life. He was witty and empathetic, a natty dresser and informal pillar of the business community.
"He was always upbeat," recalled his daughter, Terri Bonoff, who worked at Jackson Graves from 1979 through 1984. "My dad led by example. He worked the hardest and always cared about his team. He had great fashion sense. But he let his buyers lead.''
Jackson Graves was a family business, and when his father, Joseph, asked, Bonoff returned to Minneapolis in 1957 after serving as an Army officer. He led the expansion of the flagship downtown store and also the then-new Southdale location in Edina.
Barry Bonoff eventually took over the business and led it during a 30-year period of growth. He led a 1980s initiative to bolster downtown retailing — an issue that persists today.
Life wasn't perfect. There were personal and professional challenges.
Jackson Graves struggled after its Nicollet Mall store closed in the mid-1980s for redevelopment of the mall's south end. He moved the flagship to then-new City Center; the store never returned to its former success.
Bonoff shuttered Jackson Graves in 1988, amid declining sales and pressure from national chains such as the Gap and the Limited. The explosion of big-box suburban discounters also played a role.
"I'm very sad," Bonoff said in a 1988 Star Tribune interview, after closing the store and laying off dozens of employees. "It was a decision that was very hard."
That period of financial decline and a difficult divorce tested Bonoff. He transitioned in 1988 to consultant and adjunct business professor at the University of St. Thomas.
He also proved resilient — and ever grateful for family, friends and life, recalled Terri Bonoff, a former state senator from Minnetonka.
Barry Bonoff remarried to Roberta Bonoff, a former Jackson Graves store manager. The couple in 1992 opened apparel stores at the Mall of America and Galleria.
"Going back into retailing was the last thing on my mind," Barry Bonoff recalled in 1992. "But by this year … I was gaining weight and becoming too content. And it was driving me crazy."
He was again waking at 2 a.m. with business ideas.
United Kingdom-based Monsoon, a retail franchisor the Bonoffs licensed locally, was no great success. Barry and Roberta Bonoff shuttered the business by 1997. Barry retired again.
Roberta Bonoff went on to be CEO of Creative Kidstuff for years.
Barry Bonoff continued to serve, known for causes and generosity. His children remember him learning of someone down and out, or seeing an apartment building fire on TV news. He would rush to gather and deliver clothing, supplies and encouragement.
"Dad was kind to everyone, regardless of station in life," said Terri Bonoff, now the CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta. Her husband, Matthew Knopf, a former Dorsey Whitney attorney, is senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Delta Air Lines.
In retirement for 20 years, Barry Bonoff volunteered as a reading tutor for struggling students at Gatewood Elementary School in Hopkins. Bonoff's weekly community service ended after nearly 20 years when COVID-19 emptied schools.
Teacher Amanda VanWye, who became a family friend, and her students once produced a community song and dance program in honor of Bonoff: "Read Barry Read."
Bonoff, who loved to read, knew literacy was critical to an education and a successful career. Even as he battled dementia in his late 80s, someone would drive Bonoff to the school a couple days a week. He worked patiently and joyously with students.
He was a positive, encouraging mentor, at work and at school.
Hundreds gathered in late December at Temple Israel in Minneapolis to say goodbye to Barry Bonoff. He gave business and community service a good name.