“At first glance, he looked so exactly as he was supposed to that he seemed almost a caricature, and subsequent acquaintance only heightened this illusion. He was a small, neatly made man of middling years, burnished like a new penny from the top of his round bald head to the toes of his round black boots.”
Meet Mr. Wicks, the dapper valet who dresses his clients with a refined taste, from an article first published in a 1959 issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ). He’s also the namesake of one of Little Rock’s most successful family businesses, Mr. Wicks: The Gentleman’s Shop. “When dad read that, he said, ‘That’s what I want to be to my customer.’”
It doesn’t take much to get Mark Carroll, the man behind Mr. Wicks, talking about his father. Telling tales of the shop’s origin, war stories, pulling out pictures of the bomber jacket, he beams with memories kept fresh by his surroundings while sitting on an old table in the alterations basement.
Charles “Cheeks” Carroll left the insurance division of General Motors and opened the original Mr. Wicks on Kavanaugh on March 22, 1960. After quick expansion and a location change, the specialty store now sits at 5924 R St., right where it has for 52 years.
But before that, the younger Carroll began his time at the shop in 1968 at their annual Sticky Wickets summer sidewalk sale, a tradition they still uphold every July.
“I sat on the sidewalk with a table and a rack when it was about 102 degrees and weathered that for a week,” Carroll remembers. “I was fixing to start high school and I thought, you know, they always have a young man working up there, so I went to dad and his two partners and said, ‘I want to work here.’”
With that declaration, he began sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms, the grunt work you give a teenage boy. He continued through college, leaving for “one little stint” at a Steak and Ale, but the prodigal son quickly began to miss his dad’s shop and came back.
It wasn’t long until sons Mark and Chuck bought out their dad’s partners to make Mr. Wicks a true family business. After their father retired in 1983, unfortunately passing in 1992, and Chuck bowed out five years ago, Mark became the sole Mr. Carroll at the shop.
“It’s been a fun ride,” he smiles.
Once a movie costume director called with measurements for actor Hal Holbrook, who then strolled in alone and talked for hours. Even former President Bill Clinton, then governor, stopped by every Christmas Eve to do his last-minute shopping and visit with old friends.
But that’s the kind of story that seems commonplace at Mr. Wicks. Everyone is family to Carroll and that’s just the way he likes it.
“It’s relationships,” he says. “That’s always been the most important part to me. I like to visit with people, find out where they’re from. You find common ground. My dad used to do that. It’s great to know people, it really is.”
That’s the secret to generations of success. A first-timer will come in for a special occasion, usually with no idea the shop even existed, get hooked on a quality experience and then tell their friends. Sure, Mr. Wicks does some advertising, but it relies more on word of mouth and a good reputation than on Facebook likes.
Despite customer loyalty, Carroll isn’t blind to the cultural shift away from everyday elegance.
“It’s interesting to see the numbers change, generations retire. We’re living in a real casual world right now. We built this business on dress clothing, so we’ve had to adapt. It’s been an adjustment.”
Like a double-knit polyester suit (“just awful”), some things are just an unfortunate flash in the cosmopolitan pan. Then there are those, like gentility, that never go out of style.
Carroll knows that. He knows it when a teenager first comes through Mr. Wicks’ doors looking for a bow tie, or when fitting someone perfectly in a Samuelsohn suit. He knows it when old friends tell stories of his father’s handsome taste and generosity.
He knows it every morning when he wakes up, just like he knew it in 1968: “I want to work here.”
Notable names: Mr. Wicks carries a variety of brands, but some stand out more than others, such as Alden Shoes, one of only two handmade shoe lines still made in the States, and Robert Talbott Neckwear, which has been on their shelves since day one.
His ideal look: “I would have on a charcoal grey or navy suit, a crisp white medium spread collar shirt with French cuffs, a gorgeous dressy tie, polished shiny black shoes, and a pocket square that kind of just clicks with the tie I’m wearing.”
Timeless advice: After years of working with his father, Carroll picked up a few tips for good business: People like to be asked for their business and nothing is sweeter to a customer than the sound of his own name.