Blakley-Mitchell Bristol Store

Our History

If you want a glimpse of the essence of Blakely-Mitchell, the city's most enduring men's clothing store, don't ask the owner. Look at his sport coat.

On its soft exterior, the light khaki, camel hair coat voices the talking points Hugh Testerman emphasizes: fine threads and elegant tailoring.

It is this combo, old-fashioned quality that is increasingly scarce, that adds depth to a phrase Testerman repeats several times in an interview: "There are no stores likes this anymore."

Scarcity is the force that begat Blakely-Mitchell -- the offspring of two State Street clothing stores that merged during the Great Depression. Through the 20th century to the present, the store has grown roots and developed a brand its owners have marketed beyond the region, jockeying for status among the elite clothing stores of metropolitan areas.

Blakely-Mitchell has burnished its reputation by clothing the local business and political elite, from congressmen to candy magnates to NASCAR executives and anyone who won't settle for a generic-fitting suit.

But while Testerman won't acknowledge any peer stores as rivals, Blakely-Mitchell's history and brand have not sheltered the store from the current economic slide.

"Anything that can take a guy's dollar is going to be my competitor," Testerman said.

. . .

In 1933, the stores Smith-Blakely and Mitchell Smith consolidated into Blakely-Mitchell -- a union forged of tough economic times, from what Testerman remembers his father telling him.

Both stores were still listed independently in Bristol city directories as late as 1932, and the name Blakely-Mitchell first appears in a 1934 directory.

The Mitchells were established clothiers who at one point ran a store where Java J's is currently located on State Street, said Bristol historian V.N. "Bud" Phillips. By the late 1920s, Claude B. Mitchell had partnered with Thomas C. Smith, and the two apparently merged with a separate store run by William H. "Bill" Blakely and his partner. It is unclear who the "Smith" was in Smith-Blakely.

Ted Testerman, a long-serving Sullivan County, Tenn., commissioner, served an even longer tenure at Blakely-Mitchell, where he started as a salesman in 1954, fresh from the Korean War, at a princely $50 a week. He went on to buy the business in 1973 and died in March 2007.

In 1987, the Testerman family expanded its reach to Kingsport, Tenn., opening a smaller branch where another storied clothier, Fuller & Hillman, first opened in 1929. That store is managed by Hugh Testerman's brother, William.

Hugh Testerman began working at the family business as a high school freshman, and with the exception of stints in construction, woodworking and fish-frying, he has worked there since. He now occupies his father's old office at the back of the block-deep store -- a veritable shrine to the Republican Party, populated by a score or so of elephants: a knee-high, leather-stuffed elephant, several wax representations of vibrant, pastel elephants, and another gilded with seashells. Photos of Republican presidents and officials adorn the walls.

Hugh Testerman's father tailored clothes for three governors between Tennessee and Virginia -- including Winfield Dunn, who appointed Ted Testerman to the Industrial and Agricultural Development Commission. Ted Testerman also suited former Rep. Jimmy Quillen, a Kingsport Republican. Bristol straddles the state line; the store is on the Virginia side.

NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace bought a suit here, Hugh Testerman said, after the first race he won at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Mike Helton, NASCAR's president and a Bristol native, has been known to don the Enro dress shirts the store carries.

"What keeps it going is its tremendous history," said Rodger Williams, a neatly coiffed store employee with a trim moustache and a necktie crisply knotted in a Double Windsor.

. . .

The store carries everything from socks and underwear to shoes and hats and custom-made clothing. Hugh Testerman said he buys his goods twice a year from Charlotte, N.C. Most of the clothing is American-made, he said.

Another favorite selling point is the tailoring business.

"If you can't get fitted here," Testerman likes to say, "you can't get fitted." He said he carries suit sizes ranging from a 34-inch short to a 54-inch extra long.

Hugh Testerman pins the store's reputation on customer service and describes it best when he tells stories.

When the Miss Virginia pageant came to Bristol in late October, the event announcer came to Blakely-Mitchell needing a pair of slacks. The tailors had left for the day, so Testerman got out his sewing kit and fixed a pant leg -- something he hadn't done in years and wasn't even sure he knew how to do.

"I just knew I had to," Testerman said.

But is pure reputation and commitment to service a business model that can survive today's tough economic times?

The dire economic predictions, Testerman believes, have been exaggerated -- at least as far as Bristol is concerned.

Still, "I don't see people spending money like they used to," he said. "They're trying to get more wear out of their suits."

Asked if he's noticed a trend of shabbier-looking Bristolians, Testerman qualified his observation. "We sold a $1,000 sport coat yesterday," he said.

Original article by Daniel Gilbert, staff writer at the Bristol Herald Courier.