Passing the test of time

Novak’s clothing store stills thrives in the Internet era

  Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate


Chances are, if you were a boy raised in Nevada City, you made your first trip to Novak’s for that adolescent rite of passage: buying a Boy Scout uniform. 

A few years later, you returned to get that first suit that mostly stayed in your closet, brought out only for special occasions. Then there was the tuxedo you rented for the prom. Maybe another one for your wedding.


Since 1956, Novak’s on Broad Street has tended to the haberdashery needs of community males. In an era of big box shopping malls and Internet 

convenience, Novak’s has survived, even prospered.


Its history, and that of its current owners, is a story of how life has evolved in Nevada City, from the Gold Rush era to the current immigration of young hipsters and millennial families. It’s a story of how to succeed in business – know your customers.


Meet the Coughlan sisters, Kim, 60, and Laura, 52, who teases that “Kim is oldest by a long shot,” as only sisters can. 


It is a crisp early-fall mid-day of a mid-week, and we are talking about their store, their family history and their take on how to survive in a business filled with challenges.


Customers amble in at a fairly constant clip. The sisters seem to know everyone who stops by, chatting them up while they answer my questions. They finish each other’s sentences so fast I get lost trying to remember who said what.

“Our family started emigrating here in 1877,” hailing from Ireland via Boston, says Kim. “They did a little of everything, worked in the mines, the apple orchards.” 


The family still owns a ranch in North Columbia that at one time included 800 head of cattle, which were kept in the valley in the winter, then run up to the forest in the summer.


There are only about 40 head now and they truck them up to the mountains because of development in the area.

“It’s a hobby now,” says Kim, who lives on the ranch while Laura prefers the town life.


The family moved to Nevada City 94 years ago where the sisters’ father was born. Their parents both worked at Alpha Hardware, their dad for 25 years before working another 25 years for the Post Office.


“He carried mail for 15 years, then moved inside. The neat thing is this was his route,” says Kim.


“When I was little, I used to come here with my mother at Christmas-time to buy shirts for the family,” says Kim, who started working for Novak’s 30 years ago, after the original owner, Bill Novak, had sold it.


Her sister came on board eight years later and they essentially ran the store while the then-owner worked another job in Sacramento. In 2003, he decided to sell. He talked the sisters into buying it. 


“We’ve made changes with merchandise. We evolved,” says Laura. “When we were first here, we carried suits, ties, fancy clothes. Now we’re much younger.”


They have a limited selection of tuxedos and a few suits to rent, but that era of formal clothing is a bit out of style, like the box of old cummerbunds they keep in the back.


A fellow businesswoman convinced them to carry novelty socks. Now they have a wall of socks that sell like crazy, says Laura.


In addition to Pendleton shirts, which they have always carried and is a continuing big seller, they carry brands like Kühl to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd that they say is on the increase.


These folks will patronize a bar or restaurant, then stroll through town to visit the other businesses, which would then refer them to still other stores.


When the Golden Era lounge opened on Broad Street, Novak’s started getting huge crowds. Early in the evening the older folks would be out window shopping, then later it would switch to a younger set.


Conversely, when Cirino’s restaurant closed, the sisters saw their evening business drop.


It’s all a part of how retail works here. Store owners rely on both tourists and locals, they stress good customer service, they try to stay ahead of the trends and they work together so that when people either move to town or come for weekend getaways, they enjoy the entire Nevada City shopping experience.


“At Christmas time, we get a ton of locals. They try to shop locally during the holidays,” says Laura. “We also get a lot of regular customers from out of town. I have one who comes here from San Francisco three times a year. Everyone says there aren’t any clothing stores.”


Kim says the customers are attracted to the Victorian Christmas events during December.


“The town gets that warm feeling.”


They concede that the Internet has hurt business. But then people who buy online often have to send it back because they couldn’t follow the golden rule of shopping: See me, feel me, touch me.


“When people come into the store, the first thing is visual. They see it. Then it’s physical. They get to touch it. Can’t do that on the Internet,” says Laura.


As we finish up the interview, a couple wanders in. He needs a new suit and for some reason that he can’t quite fathom, his favorite one doesn’t fit anymore

Kim smiles and gives a line she’s used hundreds of times.


“Yes, closets are like that. They’ll shrink your clothes.”


About the Photos: 

 

Previous page: 

Laura (left) and sister Kim inside a clothing display at Novak’s, the store they own in downtown Nevada City.

Photo by Michael Young


This page:

Novak’s mens clothing has been on Broad Street in Nevada City since 1956.

Photo by Michael Young