From behind the counter, Keith Gist got choked up just thinking about his former boss.
A particular story came to mind, quickly flooding Gist’s eyes with tears.
Gist recalled a couple shopping for a suit for a funeral at Mr. Mac Ltd. — the iconic Hilltop clothing store where he has worked for the last six years. The shop at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Earnest S. Brazill Street was operated by Morris McCollum for more than 50 years until his death in July 2017.
The pair of mourning shoppers found a suit they liked, Gist recalled, but were unsure how to pay for it.
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“Mac, in his state of age and illness, got up out of the chair and walked over and said, ‘Keith, just give ‘em the suit,’” Gist recounted Tuesday. “Just give ‘em the suit.”
“After they left I said, ‘Mac, why did you do that?” Gist continued. “He said this is my store.”
Since McCollum’s death, the fate of Mr. Mac has hung precariously in the balance — for Gist, the longtime employee, and the community at large.
What would become of the Tacoma landmark?
Now, thanks to the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, that’s no longer the case.
Mr. Mac will continue on “for a long, long, long time,” according to the Rev. Gregory Christopher, Ministerial Alliance president and Shiloh Baptist Church pastor.
That’s because, earlier this month, the Ministerial Alliance purchased the business McCollum started back in 1957.
According to Christopher, the Alliance’s motivation is similar to what led the organization to purchase the first black-owned barbershop in the city, Sam and Terry’s, earlier this year.
“We’re stepping out on faith, and it will keep these two business … protected, so they’ll stay in this community,” Christopher said.
Christopher said plans call for moving Sam and Terry’s Barbershop into the Mr. Mac space in November, with hopes of using proceeds from both businesses to maintain the Ministerial Alliance into the future and further its work in the community.
The work of the Alliance, Christopher said, largely focuses on education. Historically, the organization has awarded $500 college scholarships to deserving area youth — as many as 20 such scholarships in a given year.
Recently, as Alliance’s funds have dwindled, the number of scholarships has, too. Last year, the organization could afford only a handful of them, Christopher said.
“I don’t know how the rest of the TMA felt about that, but I didn’t feel like it was a good representation,” the pastor explained.
Christopher believes purchasing Mr. Mac will allow the Ministerial Alliance to do more — including establishing scholarships in the names of Sam Daniels, Larry Terry and Mr. Mac — and help take the organization’s fundraising out of “the dinosaur age.” In addition to funding the organization’s scholarship, Christopher said the Alliances hopes to use profits from Mr. Mac and Sam and Terry’s to increase low-income housing and reduce homelessness.
Meanwhile, the new direction for Mr. Mac — and the certainty it provides — was on Gist’s mind Tuesday.
Not long after arranging a display of new hats, Gist contemplated what the store — and the man it’s named after — meant to this community over the years.
He instantly thought of that couple and the suit they liked for that funeral they had to attend.
“He’ll be missed,” Gist said of his former boss. “We try to keep him around.”
Stories like this, of Mr. Mac’s generosity shining through his hardened exterior, are legendary on Hilltop. So, too, is the clothing shop McCollum ran, known for its one-of-a-kind selection of brightly colored suits, hats and shoes.
That’s why keeping the doors open was so important to the Ministerial Alliance.
“When you say Mr. Mac, you know what they’re talking about,” Christopher said. “To see this just disappear, with no effort to save it, it just didn’t sit well with me.”
According to Jeff Macaluso, a personal representative for McCollum’s estate who considered the clothier like a father figure, a Hilltop without the Mr. Mac shop was a real possibility.
If a buyer hadn’t materialized soon, the brightly colored inventory likely would have been liquidated and the doors closed, he told The News Tribune.
“For (McCollum), and what he did in his legacy, it was the best move that could take place, versus just liquidating to someone and moving down the road,” Macaluso said.
“I probably, as far as moneywise, would have come out better if we got rid of it. But … for me and the other family members and heirs, we were kind of all in agreement that, ‘Hey, it was best for the community if we could put something together with the Alliance and it would keep Mac’s name alive. That would mean more to him.’”
Laura Macaluso, Jeff’s wife, agreed.
She also was briefly overcome by emotion when remembering the man that Hilltop’s most famous clothing store is named after.
“This just couldn’t be more perfect,” Laura said, fighting back her own tears. “We just waited long enough, thinking something was going to happen — somebody’s going to keep this alive.
“And that’s what happened.”