David Fleischer has some sage advice for young entrepreneurs eyeing Aspen for a future in retail.
“Have a good backing,” he said. “And you have to be onsite as a manager to do it well, particularly in a store like this. And have passion for what you’re doing. You can’t be just doing it for the money, or you’re never going to do that well with it.”
On Friday, Fleischer’s Pitkin County Dry Goods celebrates its 50-year anniversary of selling fashionable men and women’s clothing in Aspen, its most recent location at 520 E. Cooper Ave. It’s been there since 1992.
Customers will be treated to beverages and appetizers with 10% of their purchase amounts benefiting The Buddy Program, an Aspen nonprofit organization that links young Roaring Fork Valley residents with older, mentor-like figures.
Customers also will receive with their purchases a complimentary tie-dye shirt, a nod to 1969, the year the Woodstock music festival was staged, and also the year Pitkin County Dry Goods debuted on the 600 block of East Hyman Avenue.
It was actually July 4, 1969, when Fleischer’s brother, Dan, with two partners, opened the shop because “he had this idea that Aspen needed a clothing store,” David recalled.
Other than the Bill Bullock’s, a seller of such Western wear as Levi’s blue jeans and cowboy hats, Aspen didn’t have much of a clothing-store scene, Dan relayed to his brother. Dan’s insight was based on his time as a commercial real estate agent in Aspen, recalled David, who arrived to Aspen by way of San Francisco in August 1970.
“The store was almost bankrupt and, long story short, I took it over almost six months later,” David said. “I fell in love with the business. I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do; I had taken a leave of absence from law school and fell in love with it, and said, ‘Give me five years and I’ll make it work if we can keep it open.’ And that’s what I did.
“It took me a long time, because I didn’t know anything about the business.”
He had an affinity, however, for clothing and the town of Aspen, eventually building Pitkin County Dry Goods into a small yet reputable multi-brand specialty store.
“I always loved clothes,” he said. “And even when I was living in the Bay Area, I would call and give them (at Pitkin County Dry Goods) advice on different lines to buy, but even then I had no idea about being in business.”
When the store first opened, bell-bottom jeans were all the rage, T-shirts would become fashionable in the ’70s, and references to Amazon were about the rainforest and river, not the online retailer behemoth.
Yet while locally owned brick-and-mortar businesses have had a bevy of challenges in Aspen over the years — recessions, bad snow seasons, competition from deep-pocketed chain retailers, escalating rents and internet consumerism — Pitkin County Dry Goods has managed to stay afloat.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re certainly one of the oldest businesses in town under the same ownership,” Fleischer said.
He added that “we’re certainly survivors. Each successive challenge and near disaster, from no-snow years to all the recessions we went through, I suppose I learned how to survive them and get through them. I hate to be glib, but the last recession, I didn’t get too stressed out about it. I knew what to do and did it, so it went to automatic.”
Fleischer would meet his future wife, Aspen native Gina Berko, at the store in 1971. With a full-time staff of about 25 employees, Pitkin County Dry Goods assures them steady employment by staying open year-round. They also receive health insurance.
“Whatever they commit to us, we commit to them year-round,” Fleischer said, adding it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire and retain dependable employees.
Nathan Harris, who has been the men’s buyer and merchandiser for the store for six years, said it’s not just about getting a warm body on the payroll. Workers who believe in the store’s concept are more likely to succeed, stick around and become part of the store’s community-like vibe.
“Getting people to join your team and be part of that family atmosphere, I think it’s incredibly difficult in this resort town, not only because of where it is but it’s no secret it’s expensive to live here, it’s expensive to eat here, it’s expensive to drink here,” Harris said. “Everything associated with the lifestyle here is very expensive, so it takes a lot of time to find passionate, dedicated people who see the benefits of Aspen outside of just a season or two.”
The store’s inventory has changed not only with the times over the years, but also with Aspen’s changing retail landscape, Fleischer said, estimating the clientele is a combination of 70% visitors and Aspen second-home owners, and about 30% local patrons.
“Fashion continues to evolve, and we evolve with it,” he said. “We always felt we were selling somewhat wearable clothes for a mountain ski town. And we certainly have evolved with the needs of the clientele, and in the last 15 to 20 years we’ve probably had little bit more of a balance with what I consider those wearable clothes plus wearable luxury, based on the demands of our clientele.”
Fleischer is now 74. He and his wife have two grown children who aren’t part of the store’s future plans, which are another story for another time.
“I don’t have any particular plans to close it or anything like that,” he said, adding that “I’ve been very fortunate. Some of it’s luck; it really is.”
The original version of this story misidentified the wife of store owner David Fleischer, who in fact is married to Gina Berko.