On Thursday, resting in a chair among racks of bright-colored shirts and rows of flamboyant footwear, Morris McCollum is holding court.
Better known as Mr. Mac, McCollum is greeted by a steady stream of visitors to his iconic Hilltop men’s clothing store, on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Earnest S. Brazill Street.
“God bless you, Mr. Mac. We love you. We pray for you, OK?” one admirer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Checo Tohomaso, who performs Motown, R&B, and gospel music, says as he shakes McCollum’s hand.
“Give your son a hug for me,” McCollum replies, reaching up his one good arm, and hand, to the admirer — a nod to the long-term relationship they’d obviously forged.
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“I’m going to tell him,” Tohomaso says. “He really loves you, Mr. Mac.”
For just over an hour at McCollum’s store, the scene repeats itself. Patrons from Bremerton, Portland, Seattle and a man who bought a pinstripe suit from Mr. Mac when he was stationed at Fort Lewis decades ago, stop by to pay their respects to McCollum, who opened for business in Tacoma in 1957.
“I’m a destination store,” McCollum tells me when I ask how he’s managed to stay open for so long, largely in a neighborhood that’s had its fair share of challenges over the years, and now when small retailers are struggling to compete against big box stores and online sellers.
What I tell people is, when you see me, don’t think of a suit. But when you think of buying a suit, think of me.
Morris McCollum, better known as Mr. Mac
“What I tell people is, when you see me, don’t think of a suit. But when you think of buying a suit, think of me,” McCollum says.
Like the man himself, the tagline is well-worn and one he’s offered to more than one reporter from The News Tribune over the years. No surprise, really, given the amount of ink we’ve devoted to Mr. Mac.
But later this week, April 27, McCollum will turn 90 — reason enough to pound out a few more lines in praise.
“It’s been a great journey,” Mr. Mac tells me of the ride.
This column won’t be the only tribute. Earlier Thursday, the Hilltop Business Association honored McCollum’s life and Tacoma legacy. Mario Lorenz, manager of the association, tells me that, “While others were falling, (McCollum) just got taller, in a manner of speaking. … He’s an amazing man.”
And Tuesday, the City Council will officially recognize McCollum with a proclamation signed by Mayor Marilyn Strickland, paying respect to his decades in business and the key role he’s played in many community organizations, including the K Street Booster Club and the Tacoma Athletic Commission.
“Mr. Mac’s long history on Hilltop is a testament to his love for the community and his staying power,” Strickland says. “And his store is only a fraction of his story.”
In many ways, McCollum’s story is the story of Hilltop. It’s a story of determination, dedication, community and the power of sticking it out in the face of adversity. All told, Mr. Mac has had four locations on Hilltop, with stops downtown, in Seattle and in Lakewood in between.
It’s clear where his heart resides.
“I came up here and stuck it out, through the prostitution and the drugs, everything else that came along with the situation,” McCollum says of doing business on Hilltop during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“And we’ve been up here ever since, surviving. … (Hilltop is) coming back great. And I wish I was younger to see the full growth.”
A few years ago, McCollum returned to the corner location where he first opened 60 years ago. These days, the city owns the land, and someday Tacoma Housing Authority hopes to develop it.
For now, McCollum — who’s still in the store six days a week — says he plans to keep going, “As long as the Lord wants me.”
He’s not as spry as he once was — “I used to jump up like a tiger,” he tells me — and over the past six months he acknowledges his physical condition has made day-to-day operations increasingly difficult.
Still, for the time being, Mr. Mac plans on persevering — just as he always has.
Mr. Mac’s long history on Hilltop is a testament to his love for the community and his staying power. And his store is only a fraction of his story.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
“I know there’s going to be a time when I can’t be there every day. But I’ve still got my savvy, in my head,” McCollum says, his eyes still bright and his wit still sharp. “That’s the depression I have. I know what I used to be able to do, but then at my age, I realize I can’t do it.
“So, you do what you can. Do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s what I’m trying.”
What’s as clear as Mr. Mac’s passion for his business and the neighborhood it calls home is that Tacoma is better for McCollum’s continued efforts and lucky to have him.
As I pack up to leave, a momentary lull falls over the store. There’s a break in the steady stream of customers and a break in the R&B music coming from the speakers.
I ask Keith Gist, who’s worked in McCollum’s store for the past five years, how Mr. Mac became such an institution.
“There’s nowhere else around like this,” he tells me.
That’s for certain.