BY CASEY MURPHY
Ralph Mason wishes he could do it all over again.
After managing Levines for the nearly 40 years it’s been in business, Tyler’s oldest downtown department store is closing.
“It’s been a great run,” Mason, 65, said. “It was an excellent store. … To me it’s sad, but we’ve had such good customers here.”
The decision to close Levines, 107 N. Spring Ave., was made by its parent company, PLDT Partnership, which has struggled financially for the past two years, Norman Prothro, co-owner of Levines, said. The bank seized any remaining property of the company and chose to liquidate all of the inventory and assets of the company to repay debt, he said.
At its peak, there were 152 Levines stores in 11 states, Prothro said. In 2011 there were 13 Levines stores in Texas. Today, he said the company is down to Tyler’s Levines and two additional stores.
“The closing date is unknown at this time,” Prothro said, adding that all of the inventory will be sold before the doors are closed for good.
The local store has seven employees, including Mason and his wife Leslie, who has worked there for about a dozen years.
For Mason, Levines wasn’t just a shop, and he doesn’t consider managing it work.
“I haven’t worked a day in my life,” he said. “I get paid to come down here and visit with my friends.”
He said he will miss all of his customers, who made the entire experience worthwhile.
“The majority of our customers are hard-working people and really good people,” he said.
Mason recalls putting little girls into school dresses who are now bringing in their children and grandchildren for school uniforms. He said Levines was the first store in Tyler to sell school uniforms, and they do a large amount of that business.
In the going-out-of-business sale, everything in the store is now 15 percent to 25 percent off and already marked down; red-tag merchandise is buy one, get one free.
“The merchandise has been moving out relatively quickly,” he said. “We still have a fair selection of goods in the store.”
He said when the store will close depends on a number of factors, including how fast everything sells. He said it will at least be through July.
“It was something special,” he said of the store. “It had a profound effect on my life. … I wish I could go back and do it again.”
Up until the downtown fire on Feb. 2, 2009, which destroyed neighboring buildings but somehow left Levines intact, Mason said Levines had increasing sales over the years without a loss. After the fire, a fence put around the neighboring fire-damaged structures for safety cut off Levines’ parking spaces and its sidewalk for two years. That, coupled with the down economy, had an impact on the store.
“I think that was a turning point,” Mason said.
Levines was started by brothers Morris and William Levine in 1920 in Iowa Park and quickly began expanding throughout North Texas. In the 1950s, Levines continued expanding into Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico and moved its headquarters to Dallas.
In 1966, the business was acquired with several others by Zale Corp. until it was sold for liquidation in 1977. The first Levines in Tyler opened in the early 1970s on Troup Highway and was there for four years until the stores were liquidated, Prothro said. Prothro became involved with Levines in 1960 and along with other employees, bought a few of the stores after the liquidation and kept the name. They also acquired some of the K. Wolens department stores, including the one located in downtown Tyler, in 1985 and turned it into Levines.
Mason became involved with the department store business out of college. In his early 20s, he began working for Tandy Corp., which owned Mitchell Department Stores, and he managed a store in Denton. The company was sold to Zale Corp. and while he was working for that company, Dean Milkes, president of K. Wolens, hired him to manage the downtown Tyler store. When K. Wolens liquidated, Levines moved into the location at 107 N. Spring Ave. and Mason continued to manage the store.
On Thursday, Mason said he doesn’t know whether he will retire after the store closes, but he does know he’s too busy a person to do nothing. For now, he plans to fish and spend time with his three grandchildren.
“My plans for right now are to finish up Levines on a high note … and do our customers right,” he said.