After almost a century of service to Southeast Texas, Night’s Uniform has finally reached the end of the line. The store’s Quitting Business Sale began on Tuesday, Feb. 5, and the liquidation will continue six days a week until everything is sold.
“There’s a time to hold it and a time to fold it. It’s time to fold it,” said owner Ralph Night. “We’ve had a very successful run.”
All items in the store are marked down and must go before Ralph, 82, and his brother Harvey Night, 92, both of whom were diapered in the store, are willing to close shop.
Refinery workers, welders, postal employees, paramedics, police officers, those who have had problems finding large-sized clothing and regular everyday shoppers alike have relied on Night’s for their uniform needs since the store was opened in 1921 by Sam Night, Ralph and Harvey’s father. According to Ralph, Sam came to America from Austria before World War I and traveled around the cities of East Texas working at various stores before opening his own. Although possessing only three years of schooling, he spoke six different languages and felt that it was important to get to know each customer’s name and face.
“My dad had the oil field customer; he had the railroad customer; he had the working man,” Ralph said. “That was his main customer. He also had the farmer who would bring in his kids on the weekend and buy boots, Levis and Lee Riders.”
Ralph and his brother Harvey took over the store in 1945 when their father was killed in an accident. Ralph left the store for a career in the Army, where he worked his way up to the rank of colonel and even worked at the Pentagon.
“I got a call one day and they said, ‘Colonel Night, we’re looking at your records.’ And I said, ‘Good, are you going to make me a general?’ and they said, ‘No, that’s not exactly what we’ve got in mind. We’ve called mandatory retirement.’”
Ralph returned to Night’s in 1983 to help his brother with the store.
“Harvey had covered all the years when I wasn’t here,” he said.
Ralph recounted memories of his childhood, when his father ran the store. One particular item stuck out in his mind — a unique product that his dad used to sell.
“(Night’s) had something that you don’t see in the market anymore called a Fish brand oil slicker, a long duster coat that was so long it covered the back end of the horse,” Ralph said.
According to cowboyoutfitters.com, these slickers were worn by cowboys as rain gear in the late 1800s and were also worn by John Wayne in the 1972 movie, “The Cowboys.”
Upon entering Night’s store, it almost feels as if you’re walking into the early 20th century. The worn wooded floors, laid during an era of brothels and barber poles, creak with every step taken.
At the Santa Fe Barber Shop next door, men would come to get a haircut, a shave and occasionally even a bath, Ralph said.
“There were three barbers and a shoeshine stand,” he said. “One barber would work there all week and the other two would work on the weekends. They were ranchers from China, Nome and Devers.”
The neighboring building, which has since been torn town, had its own interesting story as well.
“The owner of the building was in a card game and he thought he had the winning hand,” Ralph said. “He bet half the building and he lost. It was one building but it became two locations. They actually had two different entrances to the bordellos upstairs. That was before the days of the James Commission.”
Ralph said that he also remembered the days when a railroad once ran right in front of the store.
“To this day, honestly, there is something bugging me on the first of the month and the fifteenth of the month,” he said. “That was usually the railroad payday and the guys would come in and cash their checks. We saw the steam engine pass by; we saw the diesel pass by.”
“When I was a kid, women would come to town in hats, gloves and stockings,” Ralph said. “You don’t see that anymore.”
Although the style of clothing changed over the years, Ralph said Night’s adapted to the fashion fads.
“The guy that used to sell us work clothes came in the store one day,” Ralph said. “He said, ‘Throw the work clothes out. I have a new line of shirts — long collar and cuffed sleeves.”
The shirts cost $10 a piece, but could be sold for $20, the man told the Nights.
“We were paying $1.88 for sports shirts and having a tough time selling them for $3.98, so we thought the guy was nuts,” Ralph said. “Harvey had the guts to try and went to Dallas and bought 100 shirts at a time.”
The risk paid off for the store.
“The customers came in for the Super Fly look, which was the hats, the leather coats, the wide-legged pants and Volare shoes, which had the letter ‘V’ embedded in the heel.”
The kids loved the Super Fly look, Ralph said, maybe some a little too much.
“We had a long red leather coat on display in the window and someone broke the glass to steal it,” he said. “We had 12 break-ins; someone even cut through a brick wall to steal some items. The police came out and told us not to replace the window with glass, but instead with Lexan, which was new at the time.”
Converse All Star tennis shoes or Chucks were another hot item at the time, according to Ralph.
“We kept them in 13 different colors — high-top and low-quarters,” he said. “We also had matching shoelaces for whatever color they wanted. That’s what sustained us during the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’70s, Harvey picked up an oilfield account and they would give their people a $25 gift certificate for safety. They would accumulate these certificates and, honest to God, they came from Mississippi and across Louisiana to Beaumont, Texas to shop at 479 Crockett.”
Despite the change in clothing styles at Night’s, one thing has remained consistent over the years.
“Service, service, service,” Ralph said. “We didn’t just wait for our customers to find what they wanted. We helped them.”
Roweanna Thomas, who has worked at the store as head cashier for more than 20 years, said she had expected to work at the store until she retired.
“I wasn’t thinking that they’d be closing this soon,” Thomas said. “The customers have become like friends to me, and the Nights are almost like a part of my own family,” she said. “I got to meet their children and their grandchildren. I want to thank them for allowing me to be part of their family.”
Thomas said that longtime customers are not adapting well to the store closing.
“They are asking me where they are to go from now on to get the uniform needs that they have,” she said. “And I have no idea.”
Alice Bertrand, who has worked at Night’s for more than 19 years handling everything from sewing to secretarial work, said she hasn’t looked for another job yet.
“I’m going to stick it out until the end,” Bertrand said. “It’s a good place to work.”
Ralph’s wife of 52 years, Judy, helped her husband with the store for many years much like Ralph’s mother, Sarah, helped her husband, Sam. Judy said the decision to close the store was bittersweet.
“The store has been here for 90 years, but our kids didn’t want it; our nieces and nephews didn’t want it, and Ralph is 82,” she said. “When it was the two brothers, one could go and one could stay, but now that his older brother isn’t able to do it anymore, we just felt like it was our turn. We want to go travel and visit the grandchildren and the kids.”
“My father wanted to make sure all six children got a college education, and they did,” Ralph said. “All 11 grandchildren graduated from college. That was very important to him.”
“(Ralph) has worked long enough and hard enough and this business has done its job,” Judy said.
Night’s Uniform is at 479 Crockett St., Beaumont. Call (409) 833-4252. Kevin King can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at kevin [at] theexaminer [dot] com.