In the back of Brocklind’s bridal and costume shop, Jim DeAmbrosio sits in the same office he’s been at for 25 years on Capitol Hill. Sprawled out before him are snippets of the shop’s storied past: yellowed news clippings, black-and-white photos, and and 50-year-old business invoices. One Seattle Times profile edges out of the pile. It was penned by revered Time’s humor columnist Byron Fish. In it, Fish notes that Brocklind’s is Seattle’s oldest costume shop. He typed the line in 1952.
That faded Times clip packs a mountain of Seattle history into a small corner of paper. After 106-years, Brocklind’s has done the same in their small corner of the city. Last month the Seattle costume, bridal, and tuxedo institution wrapped a deal to close for good.
“We’re working five to six days a week and we thought we might want to enjoy life a little more,” DeAmbrosio said. “We’ve been thinking for a couple of years now that if there was a good opportunity, we would take it.”
That opportunity came with an offer from Hunter’s Capital – the Capitol Hill-based, preservation-minded developers behind other auto-row projects and the Broadway Building. DeAmbrosio, who has owned the building erected in 1925 since 1986, said it was important to him that the 500 E. Pike St. structure retain its old-Seattle charm.
Now that the deal is done, Jim and his wife Diane have opened for one last sale, an everything-must-go push through the end of February. Highlight items up for sale include 1920s beaded bodices, vintage military jackets, turn-of-the-century wood steamer trunks, and vintage leather chaps. The warehouse-like store is packed with thousands of suits, dresses, and costumes.
Like DeAmbrosio, his two daughters grew up in the shop — but they never took a strong interest in owning it. He said he briefly considered trying to find someone outside the family to run the shop, but that didn’t feel right after it lasted so long as a family business.
Don’t bother trying to look up the original Brocklind family. They don’t exist. According to DeAmbrosio, “Brocklind” was a name born of the shop’s two original owners: Mrs. Brockman and Mrs. Lindeman. The two opened their downtown shop in 1906 – that’s one year before the opening of Pike Place Market.
DeAmbrosio said costumes, not formal wear, were the original focus.
Back before Seattle had its own theater company, DeAmbrosio said traveling plays and vaudeville shows would rely on shops like Brocklind’s to supply extra costuming. When the upscale Seattle department store Frederick & Nelson hosted its annual Santa, Brocklind’s provided the suit. Beards and wigs were once a big part of the business.
Fresh out of First Hill’s O’Dea High School, Jim’s father, Ray, joined the store as a clerk in 1928. Ten years later Ray bought the business, and it has remained in the family ever since. Jim followed his older brother, Jerry, into the family business after graduating from Seattle University in 1973.
Beginning in the 1950s Seafair was, for many years, Seattle’s showcase attraction, and Brocklind’s ensured participants were dressed to impress. Miss Seafair, King Neptune, and the Royal Court all got decked out in Brocklind’s garb. For a long time, DeAmbrosio said the Seafair clowns and pirates came to the store to get their costumes and makeup done.
In the late 80s, Brocklind’s was forced to move from its 9th and Olive location to make way for the construction of the Downtown Transit Tunnel. It was a gamble moving up the Hill. DeAmbrosio recalled a lot of handwringing at the time, wondering how the overlooked neighborhood would develop.
“I used to think of Capitol Hill as just a throughway to downtown,” DeAmbrosio said. “Now it’s a destination.”
The move was a big deal when visibility had nothing to do with SEO. DeAmbrosio said he remembers the first couple years on Capitol Hill while the tunnel was under construction, he would get phone calls from customers at the pay phone next to the old location. “They would say ‘where are you?’ I could hear the jackhammers in the background.”
In the 1990s, Brocklind’s reached its peak with five locations and around 40 employees. The U-District branch, at 43rd and The Ave., was the largest satellite. The store opened in 1948, and according to Brocklind’s lore, it was northernmost costume shop west of the Mississippi.
While Brocklind’s has done a good job sweeping up local competition over the years, cheaply foreign-made products sold online and in international chain stores have taken their toll on the business. At one time the shop employed six full time seamstresses who would create costumes from scratch, taking orders from high school drama departments, traveling plays, and mascots for local companies (rumor has it Brocklind’s did the the first-ever Rainer Beer suit).
“Being a seamstress, it’s hard because people don’t realize the quality of the handmade costumes over the packaged costumes – they’re two completely different things,” said Diane, who has run the store’s bridal shop for 20 years.
DeAmbrosio insists costumes and formalwear are two sides of the same double-breasted suit. “People often ask ‘isn’t it strange to sell costumes and tuxedos’? Absolutely not. It’s all dressing up. A tuxedo is just another costume.”
And as fashion styles change and re-emerge, so does the line dividing formal wear and costume. DeAmbrosio said having both in stock makes a lot of sense.
“We never really get rid of anything, we just move (formal wear) over to the costume department. Now it’s retro.”
Over the past half-century, DeAmbrosio has had a front row seat to the evolution in men’s formalwear. Starting when skinny and sleek broke into the scene in the 1950s. Then the pale blues and pinks of the 1960s; oversized lapels, polyester, and loud colors in the 1970s; the conservatism of the early 1980s and the re-emergence of colored jackets later in the decade (aka the “Miami Vice look”). Neckties entered formal wear in the 1990s, DeAmbrosio said, and things have remained fairly stable since. “The fashion meter doesn’t swing so wide anymore.”
During his lifetime of dressing up Seattle, DeAmbrosio said what kept it exciting was helping people transform into something else, even for just a night. “When people walk into our store, they want to be something different. They want to be something they’re not aren’t every other day of their lives. There’s something special about that.”
DeAmbrosio’s biggest pleasure is now hearing stories from past costumers (leave ’em if you got ’em, embarrassing pics encouraged). “That’s what I’m going to miss, hearing about how Brocklind’s had some little part in people’s lives,” he said.
The day after he officially closes the store, DeAmbrosio said he’ll take a deep breath and think about the next, hopefully less hectic, phase of his life. “It’s been a good ride, it’s been a good ride.”