Evensky’s Big and Tall has stood as a fixture in the historic Orange Mound despite changes to the neighborhood over the past 70 years. Once second only to New York’s Harlem in prominence, as the decades passed, the neighborhood’s fortunes have receded.
The walls of Evensky’s are lined with pants, shirts and suits. The floor space is packed with stacks of sweaters and hats, shoes and socks. One immediately gets the sense the space has changed very little over the years.
“When my father got back from the service in 1945, he was married and needed a place to live. The original property on Carnes Avenue had living quarters on it,” said Maury Evensky, owner of Evensky’s Big and Tall.
Filling needs of both retail space and home, his father purchased the property. The first iteration of Evensky’s operated as more of a general store.
“It had men’s clothes, women’s clothes, children’s clothes, toys, hardware, paint and wallpaper. It had just about everything except for food,” he said.
As sundries phased out, the store began to curtail some of its other products like hardware and women and children’s clothes.
Customers at Evensky's Big and Tall in Orange Mound. (Renier Otto)
After several years, the store relocated from Carnes Avenue to its current spot at 2363 Park Avenue. The city of Memphis bought the Carnes property to enlarge the Hanley School, so the Evensky’s bought their current store’s property in 1965 and has been there ever since.
After the move, the store became known as Evensky’s Big and Tall.
“The market just changed. We went from a working, conservative business to a high-fashion business back in the ‘60s,” he said. “It’s not so much that way now, but back in the ‘60s it was high-fashion men’s clothing store.”
Many of the styles of that era can still be found in the store. Modern looks are eschewed. Featured clothes include brightly-colored, patterned sweaters in stripes and geometric prints, fedoras of all shades, full double-breasted suits in solids and pinstripes and shoes of every style from formal to boots to sandals. Clothes for the working man include Carhartt jeans, shirts and socks. Founded in 1889, Carhartt is known for durable work clothing.
“We carry old school or the clothes that people wore back in previous years that people today who are 60 to 70 years old wore when they were 30 or 40 years old,” he said. “It’s a lot of things they can’t find anywhere else.”
The adherence to vintage clothing has helped the retailer cultivate a loyal customer base. Eighty percent of the Evensky’s business is from outside of Orange Mound. Customers come from all over Memphis, Northern Mississippi, Eastern Arkansas and North Tennessee.
Ronald Turner, a longtime customer at Evensky's Big and Tall tries on fedoras at the store located on 2363 Park Avenue in Orange Mound. (Renier Otto)
One of those customers is Ronald Turner, a former resident of Orange Mound that now resides in South Memphis.
“I’m a big man. It’s hard to find big-man clothes. He has them at a reasonable price. He works with me. I’ll put it to you like this – he’s a salesman. I get personal service,” Turner said.
The commitment to service and to an individual’s need, has made Turner a return customer of 30 years.
“I’m self-employed and he helps me with casual clothes, working clothes – all that I need. If he doesn’t have what I am looking for, he’ll order it. As a consumer, I like to spend money where it’s warm. You like to be treated right,” he said. “The price doesn’t matter when you’re treated right, but his prices are very reasonable. Especially for a big man like me.”
While many of the styles at Evensky’s have endured, the surrounding neighborhood of Orange Mound hasn’t fared as well.
“The neighborhood has gone from an owner-based neighborhood. People owned their homes, for the most part and their own businesses as well,” Evensky said.
Fifty years ago, marks of a vibrant community were on display up and down Park Avenue.
“This was a thriving neighborhood when we moved here in 1965. There were storefronts next to us all up and down. People would be walking up and down the street on Friday nights,” he said. “Liquor stores, barber shops, bars – it was a lively neighborhood.”
The community never recovered from the riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like other black neighborhoods, grief gave way to violence and destruction. Scenes of pitched battles between rioters and police, as well as looting and arson played out on the evening news in households across the country.
In the following years, powerful economic forces worked to further diminish the neighborhood particularly as large retail competitors muscled out smaller businesses. It was one of the few downsides to the civil rights movement. Black consumers began taking their purchasing power outside of their communities. Many small, black-owned businesses never recovered.
“Things have just changed for all of us with the big chain stores coming in. There used to be little corner groceries on every corner all throughout the neighborhood,” Evensky said. “And it’s not just here, it’s everywhere. The chains pushed a lot of that business away. There used to be a lot of clothing stores in the neighborhoods, but they’re just not there anymore.”
In the decades that followed, Orange Mound underwent drastic changes. Crime and drugs flourished. Abandoned, some iconic buildings fell into disrepair.
“The old Handy Theatre used to be right next door to us and they tore it down a few years ago. It was in bad shape. It would have taken a lot of money to restore it. It was a historic theatre for the neighborhood. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s there was big-time entertainment there – Sammy Davis, Jr., and many others.”
While it remains to be seen whether neighborhood involvement, gentrification or some other vehicle for renewal eventually casts Orange Mound in another direction, Evensky’s Big and Tall isn’t going anywhere.
“I feel like I have something that is still unique,” he said. “I enjoy what I am doing. I’m not ready to retire quite yet.”