Mike Bjorn’s store/museum — A Wisconsin men’s clothier that’s never boring or out of style
BY Dave Hoekstra firstname.lastname@example.org October 12, 2012 2:46PM
Sun-Times reporter Dave Hoekstra channels his "inner Elvis" by trying on this gold lame suit at Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing & Museum (of Suits and Hangers) in Kenosha, Wis. The polyester suit coat is accented with powerful epaulettes. PHOTO BY DAVE HOEKSTRA
IF YOU GO
Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing and Museum: 5614 6th Ave., (262) 652-0648; take I-94 north to 52nd Street exit (158), head east to Kenosha Harbor and take a right on 6th Avenue. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Free admission.
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:17AM
KENOSHA, Wis. — Some road trips are tailor-made.
And Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing & Museum (of Suits and Hangers) fits the bill.
The clothing and curios store is located in a meandering former Kresge’s department store in downtown Kenosha, Wis. In terms of inventory, Bjorn’s is the largest men’s clothing store in Wisconsin. Besides several thousand suits and tuxedos (for sale), there’s a “Wall of Shame” featuring 99 vintage hangers from defunct men’s clothing stores within a 50-mile radius of Kenosha. And don’t miss Bjorn’s own paintings of ships and Navy dirigibles.
“I’ve got the market cornered on dirigible painting,” Bjorn says.
Bjorn is always going somewhere.
“You have to have zero intellectual curiosity to walk by this place and not want to come in,” Bjorn says while sitting under a rack of bow ties that hang from the ceiling. “I’ll get a gentleman who will say, ‘I haven’t been in a men’s store in 20 years, but as long as I’m here...’ and he came in because of the collection of (24) submarines, Indian statues, or the (50 model) airplanes. One of my favorite ‘Bjornisms’ is ‘I don’t want to live in a world of ‘Blah Marts’ or if you’re hungry ‘McBlahs’.’ When you are traveling and you can’t find a fun place like this — borrrring.”
Bjorn’s is to bling what laundry is to boring. No matter where you look, something will catch your eye. Bjorn looks up at the museum of hangers.
“The 99th hanger is from Johnnie Walker’s in Milwaukee,” he says. “It closed two years ago. They had been in business since 1937. At one time they had six stores in the Milwaukee area, but they didn’t change with the times. Now I’m not suggesting everybody has to go with this decor, but how many people don’t like airplanes? How many people don’t like ships?”
In the middle of a conversation, I saw a green Gumby tie by the cash register. I liked that.
“Actually Gumby ties are our most popular tie,” Bjorn says. “Kids even appreciate Gumby ties. Who would have thought bow ties would be coming back? We carry the best collection of suspenders in the Midwest. I bet we have 150 different kinds of suspenders.”
Bjorn, 65, has the beaming smile of a man with few hangups. He is a lifelong Kenoshian. He began playing drums as a child and went to University of Wisconsin/Parkside in Kenosha to teach art and music. He was a substitute teacher before beginning his career as a haberdasher in October, 1964. Bjorn found part-time work at S.J. Crystal’s Men Store, which is down the block at 5701 6th Ave.
Bjorn’s store and museum is at 5614 6th Ave. (it’s third and current location in downtown Kenosha). Bjorn and his wife Judy saved $10,000 in seven years to open their first store in 1981. They have been in their current location for 25 years.
The old Kresge’s shapes the warmth of the space. Bjorn retained the original white tin ceiling from the early 1930s, and he varnishes the maple floors himself.
“Of course Kresge’s turned into Kmart,” Bjorn says matter-of-factly.
Judy, 57, does most of the tailoring, and their son Brett, 28, works the counter. In his spare time, Bjorn plays drums with guitarist-foot bass player Jim White. Bjorn & White will play top 40 and classic rock between 5-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Boat House Pub, 4917 7th Ave., [(262) 654-9922; no cover] on the beautiful nearby Kenosha Harbor. No word if they cover ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”
There is no dress code at the Boat House.
“We do wear matching suits,” Bjorn says. “If you look like you know what you’re doing, the crowd will believe what you’re doing. Then you demonstrate you know what you’re doing.”
Bjorn’s emporium is conveniently located across the street from two fine restaurants: the jazz bistro-martini bar Sazzy B 5623 6th Ave., (262) 925-8499, and the overly-clever named Wine Knot Bar & Bistro, 5611 6th Ave., (262) 653-9580.
If you stop at Bjorn’s before dinner, you indeed will be all dressed up with someplace to go.
John Landa is a Kenosha commercial real estate broker who has been a Bjorn’s customer since day one. Is he more impressed with the museum or the store?
“I still see something new every time I walk in,” Landa answers with a hearty laugh. “Whether it is a historic coat hanger or a painting of a ship. It is unlike any retail store I’ve seen. Mike and Judy are part of the history of Kenosha. He’s got his easy chairs in the front and back of the store, and he will sit down and chat with you about anything.”
My favorite stop in the place was the “Rock Star and Professional Entertainer” section of suits in the basement.
This is where I channeled my inner Vegas-era-Elvis to try on a gold lame polyester coat. “It’s got the epaulets on the shoulder,” Bjorn says while tugging on the coat for a neat fit. “So the epaulets were the military look from the ’30s and ’40s, yet this is a coat we got in earlier in the spring. They keep recycling ideas. This would be the front man of the band. It also comes in silver so you could have the side men in silver.”
Brett Bjorn admits not many rock stars hit downtown Kenosha, but the store sees lots of personal assistants of the stars working in the Chicago entertainment and movie industry. His father adds, “(Comedian) Judy Tenuta came in. She was brought in by a ventriloquist guy. He was looking for a tailcoat. We have a different pricing structure than Chicago, and it works. The tuxedo we rent for $79 or $89; you go to a chain or even a local guy, they are going to hit you for almost $200.
“I have kids coming up from Chicago for lime green ties, hankies and tux coats ($99). That’s the hot color. Couldn’t find it in Chicago. There’s reasons Chicago people come to downtown Kenosha. We’ve had days where everyone in here is from Illinois.”
And that’s why the front store window features a black-and-white picture of former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne looking adoringly at a photo of former Chicago mayor Harold Washington.
“We also put on display what you guys pay in sales tax,” Bjorn continues. “Here it is like 5½ percent; down by you it’s 10 percent in some places.”
Bjorn, six-foot-three-inches, is cleaning the store on a Thursday afternoon, which is why he is wearing a black-and-white skeleton T-shirt. But make no bones about it, men don’t dress up like they used to.
“It’s disrespect, but mainly people [are] being cheapskates,” Bjorn says. “They won’t buy a white shirt, black tie and black pants to go to a relative or buddy’s funeral. Guys have forgotten how to tie a tie. And when we started in 1981, everything in the store was American-made, union-made. At that time Kenosha still had 6,000 people building (Chrysler) cars. I can’t tell you how many people walked out the door empty-handed thanking me for American-made, union-made. That was why Kenosha was in the top 20 cities per capita income in this country for almost 25 years. (The 2009 estimated per capita income was $21,616; the Kenosha Chamber of Commerce had no figures for 1981). I am seeing a bit of an upswing or I wouldn’t still be in business.”
And Bjorn deals a satisfied look throughout his living, breathing museum.
A Kenosha clothier playing drums for a stripper? Read about it at blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra/