Jackson County Times

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Gem In Downtown Marianna, “Suitman’s” Men Shop

By Bo McMullian

Why not buy your next men’s suit, sport jacket, or tuxedo rental from a local entrepreneur who is also a “Great American?” Gene Smith, 76, the owner of Suitman’s Men Shop on Lafayette Street in downtown Marianna, has earned that distinction the old-fashioned way. Not only has he survived the Korean War and a more recent fight with throat cancer, Smith embodies American entrepreneurship, being the owner of his own business for most of his life.

And he’s a local boy who has “done good” as well. Born in Alford, the brother of the late Mayor Don Smith, he attended Marianna High School and then left to join the Navy in 1952 during the middle of the Korean War. “I went straight from boot camp to Korea,” Smith said, “I was stationed on the destroyer USS McDermot.” His second tour would have been in 1954 but the war ended, leaving him on overseas shore duty in Japan. He remained there until 1956 when he left the service and returned to Jackson County.

Smith finished up the 1950s working for the Harrison Chevrolet parts department in Marianna. Then after a succession of serving other dealerships in Panama City and Ocala, he seized upon an opportunity to work for Snap-On Tools as an independent dealer. He stayed with Snap-On for several years, eventually becoming a district manager. Finally, in 1985 he was ready to take on the reins of full business ownership, going into a wedding and banquet rental operation in Tallahassee.

Smith succeeded in this venture and he planned to retire after 10 years and return to Jackson County. But here’s where his wife of 22 years, Helen, comes into his life. Today she is the co-owner of Suitman’s Men Shop. “I was ready to retire,” Smith said, “but she was too young to consider retirement, so we bought the Cottondale suit store from Doug James and ran it until February 1999. We decided the Cotttondale store wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t keep 70 suits in that tiny place,” Smith said. “I can put 600 here.” The labels on his present stock of suits include JohnnyWear, Wall Street and Vinci and range in price from $99 to $269.

The Smiths have those suits on display in their downtown Marianna haberdashery along with shirts, ties, pants, men’s jewelry and Park Royal hats, reminiscent of Daffin’s and Turner’s men stores. Two young men in the store Monday said they would come again “for the prom,” since a large part of the store’s business comes from tuxedo and formal wear rentals.

Smith reports they are doing OK, in spite of the recession. “I think 2008 was the worst year ever,” he said, “but 2009 has been relatively good for this economy. July and August were weak but they always were down months because people are involved with vacations and everything.”

Helen, a “Georgia girl,” as she puts it, is from Albany. She was in the banking business, bookkeeping end, for 26 years before she met Gene in Tallahassee while she was looking to rent some tables and chairs. “She found me in the yellow pages,” Gene said. “She looked in the phone book and I was the first listing..” He may be bragging a bit when he says, “I needed a bookkeeper, so I married one.”

Helen became Gene’s spiritual partner as well, for they are both quite religious. In addition to being active in the Baptist Church, Gene also serves with the local Gideons International group. It doesn’t stop there either; he also serves Our Lord as a lay speaker. He spoke in Bonifay last Sunday, is speaking in Wewa next week and in Crestview after that.

“I feel as if it’s a way of doing the Lord’s work by being a witness,” Smith said. He has some advice for those concerned about the current troubles the United States is facing: “I’d like to see the U.S. return to the nation we once were. In my opinion, our nation has moved too far to the left. We need to work on our relationships with the world and especially our relationship with Our Lord. We are ‘one nation under God’ and we need to become a Christian nation...again.”

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