Tying up loose ends of tailor's career

Finally, at the age of 80, Rufus Mitchell puts down his scissors and thread, once and for all

Baltimore ... Or Less

August 01, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

Though Mitchell's Tailors changed hands in late June, though the boiler in the basement is silent and the steam press is waiting for the new owner to fire it up again, Rufus N. Mitchell has returned to the shop at least once a week.

Mitchell, who, along with his wife, Margaret Mitchell, owned the business at 414 Wilson St. for 55 years, couldn't stay away entirely.

But after 55 years, who could?

Mitchell drove back to the shop in Druid Hill from his home in Baltimore County one day when he realized he had left some old family photographs on the wall.

He went in another day when he needed a certain color of thread he thought he had brought home but had not.

One Saturday he went back because the new owner, David Flemings, needed help locating a customer's order among the racks and racks of pressed shirts and pants.

"He loved his work," said Mitchell's daughter, Jane Martin. "He just loved what he did."

What he did for 55 years, for more than half a century, was wake between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and drive his wife to the shop and then drive on to a second job as a tailor. For many years, he labored at department stores like Stewart's and Hutzler's, and for many other years he worked at Fort Holabird. He retired from his last second job, in the tailor's shop at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, in 1989.

When he worked two jobs, Mitchell drove back to the shop on Wilson Street at the end of the day and spent a few more hours there. He cuffed white tuxedos for fellow members of his Masonic Lodge, hemmed Easter dresses for neighborhood women, shortened sleeves of suit coats when they were more common, tapered pants for men when that was the style.

Mitchell's daughter, Yoma Mitchell Howell, said, "Mother did most of the pressing, and father did all the tailoring, and people always complimented them that the pants might get dirty but the creases always stayed."

Mitchell had chose to become a tailor while a student at Carver Vocational School in the 1940s. A pan of car oil spilled on him in shop class, and he decided at that moment he would rather be a tailor than a mechanic.

He went into the U.S. Navy after school, and when he left the service in 1949, opened the shop on Wilson Street.

In time, the business became a place where neighborhood children gathered, Mitchell Howell said, but then the children grew up, the neighbors moved away, and the community changed.

Mitchell put bars on the window when thugs robbed his wife one afternoon. He built a contraption at the entrance to the shop, a system of doors and locks where a customer could slide in clothes to be cleaned and he could retrieve them without risk.

"Once this guy tried to crawl through the bin at the shop threatening to rob them and my father had a pair of tailoring shears -- they must have been 12 inches long and weighed 5 to 7 pounds," Mitchell Howell said. "And my father cracked that guy on the head with those shears, and he left."

When he retired from the Naval Academy, his wife retired, and she stayed home while he tended the shop. Mitchell kept the lot beside his shop mowed and free of trash even as rowhouses around him became vacant.

And day after day, year after year, he went in to the shop.

"I liked the neighborhood, and I liked the business, and I liked what I was doing, and I stayed until they kept bugging me to come on home," Mitchell said.

His daughters worried about him, but they secretly wondered what would become of him if he sold the shop.

Would he miss it?

"Well, somewhat," Mitchell will tell you now. "But then again, after 55 years, after holding two jobs like I've been doing for years and years, I'm happy to be home."

He turned 80 old on June 17 and went to settlement on the shop five days later.

And just the other day, a month after the shop changed hands, Mitchell slept in, almost until 8 a.m., and then went downstairs and asked his wife of 60 years what she wanted for breakfast.

Hot cakes and sausages, she said.

Mitchell cooked breakfast for his wife.

And that day, it was the only work he did.

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