Last year, between Los Angeles and New York, I spent six months in my old environs of the Bay Area, including five weeks staying with a former flame (now married to a Hungarian who lost his baronetcy in the revolution), in Oakland on Lake Merritt.
Out for a stroll one day, I popped into Walden Pond Books, one of those massive used bookstores you can get lost in for hours, and of which so few remain today. In the back were several tables loaded with paperbacks from the '50s, a mixture of science fiction and detective dime novels and reprints of stuff like DH Lawrence and Ovid's Art of Love with lurid covers.
Of these hundreds of books stacked pell-mell, one caught my eye: a 1959 novel called Try For Elegance by David Loovis. The characters were described as "white-collar Beats" and included Teena, "a commuter between Park Avenue and Greenwich Village," and Paul, "a bohemian in a Brooks Brothers suit."
I had a feeling I'd stumbled across a real lost artifact, and rushed home with the three-dollar book to do some Googling.
I found an article in The New Yorker that profiled Loovis and his debut novel. Turns out the author was an Ivy Leaguer who worked at Brooks Brothers' Madison Avenue flagship, and Try For Elegance was largely based on his experience there.
I can't describe the serotonin-rush of serendipity that flushed over me because of this fortuitous find. In my six years of style blogging, this was without a doubt the coolest find. Who else would have noticed this book and been in the position to appreciate it, put it in context, and share it with an interested readership? If fate has a hand in blogging -- if fate has a hand in anything -- this was it.
As for the novel, its quality is about what you'd expect from an author you've never heard of who's prone to describing the weather as "warmish," "bluish" or "fallish." But for our purposes here, Try For Elegance is a fascinating document for its dramatization of what it was like at Brooks Brothers (which is never mentioned by name) during its heyday.
Like his creator, Paul Dunar is the graduate of "a small Ivy League college." He is a 29-year-old aspiring painter who's been working at the store for a year, and who falls for a 19-year-old spoiled rich girl from the Midwest. Paul has a taste for good clothes, is conscious of being well dressed, and delights in the pleasure of being well turned out:
The silk jacket beneath his raincoat felt good, his trousers were perfectly pressed and his linen could not have been whiter. He too liked a handkerchief in his suit coat top pocket and as his raincoat fell open, he saw that it was thrust in at a casual and jaunty angle.
Here's the first description of the store, which ends on a killer line:
It was with great pride that the Madison Avenue store proclaimed its one hundred and thirty years of continuous service; indeed, only two things appeared on its label: the store name and the year of its establishment. It catered in men's furnishings and clothing to what is know as the perennial taste; suits designed with a narrow shoulder, made of subdued colored materials woven in England, and cut by the store's own tailors; furnishings distinguished by flair without ostentation. In its long history, the store numbered among its customers American presidents and European kings, as well as all the people alive in the world during the last century and one-third who agreed that this was the style that mattered.
Here's a sense of what customer service was like 50 years ago:
Of the twenty-six salesmen on the main floor of the Madison Avenue store, fourteen had worked there over ten years, six were members of the Quarter Century Club, and one man had actually been in the employ of the company for fifty-one years.
The latter gent was "more than an old salesman. To the well-bred of the era, he was a landmark, a reminder of youth and a happy, stable world."
Quite a contrast to Paul's floor manager, Mr. Pardee, who wears a gaudy watch and had "come in his teens from a tiny town in one of the far midwestern states." Here's Mr. Pardee:
He detested to the point of vehemence the term "Ivy League" although the store was generally considered as the long-time stronghold of that type of apparel. Dunar suspected Pardee's lack of college background and a secret envy of the well-fed, rangy type of boy and man who mostly patronized the store had something to do with it.
Loovis devotes an entire chapter to dramatizing the feeding frenzy during one of the store's semi-annual sales, during which Paul is poised to make enough money to move into a new apartment:
Even from a distance of three blocks, Dunar could see that a number of people had gathered and were waiting outside the Madison Avenue store...
He noticed the jam of people in front of the elevators. It was as if the cars were lifeboats, and it was necessary to get into one. But it was not often that the store offered reductions, in almost all its departments. And it was not too much to say that customer response to these private sales, unadvertised in the papers (notices through the mail only), was fanatic.
The store feeds the salesmen milk and sandwiches during the day to keep up their stamina, and at the end of the grueling day, during which the elderly salesman had collapsed from exhaustion, Dunar faces two and a half hours of writing up his sales book.
Here's what The New Yorker had to say in its profile of July 11, 1959, after dispatching a writer to track down Loovis at Brooks:
We found him deep in wash-and-wear suits, on the second floor, and begged the privilege of an interview. Slender, dark-haired, and dapper, he said he'd be glad to give us a word or two between customers. To break the ice we remarked that he was the best-dressed author we'd encountered in many years.
Loovis later tells the magazine:
The 'elegance' of the title doesn't refer solely to physical surroundings, by the way. An elegant person is a gentleman, one who knows how to handle himself. He cares for his life, and intends to live it in association with others who care and with things that are beautiful and fine. In my novel, I deal sympathetically with a middle-class hero who wishes to play the game but is ill-equipped to do so.
You'll dig the vintage Brooks lingo here:
Mr. Loovis was called away to wait on somebody, and upon returning he told us that Brooks Brothers salesmen take customers in rotation and that, by bad luck, the customer who just had fallen to him had proved an egg, which is a BB term for a customer who takes a lot of time and then doesn't buy anything. The opposite of an egg, Mr. Loovis told us, is a wrapup -- a customer who knows exactly what he's after and wastes no time getting it -- while a sea bass is a big buyer, and a huckleberry is a pleasant fellow who moseys around the store for an hour or so, making no trouble, and eventually buys a necktie or some other small article.
Loovis closes by telling the New Yorker:
The job gives me a good income and I believe in what I'm selling; there's an undeniable integrity, a psychological validity, here at Brooks that I mightn't find anywhere else.