While many of Jim Hunt's contemporaries in the apparel business have retired in recent years, the owner/operator of Jim's Slack Shack still loves the daily interaction with his customers.
"I love the people, and we really appreciate our customer base," he said. "Our customers are friends."
"We have a lot of second and third generation customers, and that's part of what makes this business enjoyable," he said. "Usually, someone doesn't come in and just say, 'I need a coat,' (but) they tell you why they need a coat."
In that way, Hunt learns not only about his customers, but their families, and their lives, he said.
"I tell people, 'I don't work, I just hang around and gossip with my friends,' and there is some truth to that."
'Raised in the business'
Hunt "was raised in the business," as he started working at a Summerville department store on Saturdays when he was 14. His mother also worked there, and he returned to that store to run it at age 25, by which time he already had gained management experience at a furniture store.
"After that, I ran a small operation of about three stores for a few years, but I wanted to be in business for myself," he said. His wife's father had a grocery store in Dalton, and Jim and Eva actually launched their clothing business from inside her family's home, so "we didn't really have any overhead."
In 1973, he and his wife opened a clothing store on Dixie Road on Dalton's south side.
"In those days, traffic in Dalton flowed north and south," but when they moved to their current location at 1507 E. Walnut Ave in 1985, the mall had been constructed on Walnut Avenue, and the road had been extended, so "we needed to be where the traffic was," since traffic shifted to east and west movement on Walnut Avenue, he said. "It was a good move, (as) we were able to tap into the flow of traffic."
Hunt benefited from the fact that in the 1970s, "Georgia was a big apparel hub with a lot of clothing manufacturers at their height," he said. "I was one of many people who was helped by that, (because) we could get credit with little capital."
"We were just one of many across the (Southeast) who got our start then, (although) not very many have lasted as long as we have," he said. In some cases, those businesses died "because there was no second generation to take over," but "we've always been blessed to have good help," including some family members, and "we were able to build a good clientele."
Hunt settled on a business strategy early on, he said.
"Sell a good product at less money than a department store, and the volume level would offset the difference in the margins."
Personalized service has also been pivotal, he said. "Lower prices and better service, that has worked for a long time," allowing the store to weather economic vicissitudes, as "we've sailed through recessions."
There have been complications, however.
For example, the consolidation of local carpet companies eliminated numerous middle management positions, and many of those individuals were customers, he said. "When we started, there were 200 little carpet mills in town."
Hunt has also adjusted inventory over the years in response to the gradual shift toward more business-casual attire, offering more of those clothes in the shop.
"People don't dress for work the way they used to," he said. "They still look nice, but it's just more casual."
"I used to hang 1,000 suits and sport coats, but now I'm down to about 600, (with) more casual wear" taking more space, he said. "Instead of 1,000 tailored trousers, I have about 300, (with) about 500 hemmed, ready-to-wear" casual pants.
"They want to buy it off the shelf and go instead of having something altered or tailored," he said. "It's more casual and more instant."
That slide hasn't been only in offices, however, he said. "Even clubs that used to (mandate) jackets in the dining room" have relaxed those rules.
"Fortunately, we've had a really good formalwear business all these years that we've worked hard to establish," he said. Attire for special events, such as weddings and proms, "has been a big part of our business, and we rent tuxedos to people whose grandfather rented from us."
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be "by far the toughest time to get through," he said. "We've had recessions and all that, but never anything on the scale of this pandemic."
"We had to lay off all our help, so it's just my wife and I, (and) we've had to (cut) our hours to make it work, (but) things are opening up again and looking better," he said. "At some point, we'll be able to add staff, (because) it's getting better, but, like everything else, it's going to take time to get back to where we were" pre-pandemic, because this "affected everybody all over the country."
The apparel business was hit especially hard, because events like weddings and proms were curtailed, as was travel, he said. "People would come in to buy a suit for a wedding, or buy a jacket for the captain's dinner on a cruise," but, during the pandemic, some weddings were put off or held differently, and "the cruise industry was shut down."
Hunt, his wife, and their three sons (Dewayne, David and Dwight) are all major proponents of the COVID-19 vaccines, he said.
"I'm a firm believer everyone should be vaccinated, because that's the only way to beat this thing long-term."
Hunt's best advice for those who want to start their own business is "work harder than anybody else."
"It doesn't matter the business," he said. "You have to be willing to work harder than everyone else in your business."
Hunt conceded "I'm not sure how much longer we'll do this at our age," 78 for him and 76 for his wife, but "I hate to think of sitting in the house on the sofa," he said with a smile. "Not having the day-to-day relationships would be the worst thing, because this is a personal business, like a jeweler, (where) people share their needs, and (by doing so) they share part of their life with you."