At 672 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN sits Tom’s Tailors, a small-business opened up by Nghĩa “Tom” Chu back in 1993. He started the business on his own, a feat I expect had its share of blood, sweat, and tears.
The beginning of the business and my father in general remains a mystery to me because my dad and I can’t really talk. My dad knows all the right words to run his business and carry charming conversations as he works, but my questions went over his head. He furrowed his eyebrows and tilted his head and would ask me “__ là gì?” which means “what is __?”. However, my dad can talk up a storm in Vietnamese. At family parties, he will talk to his brothers and sisters and friends until I or one of my sisters ask if we can go home. Even then, he’ll continue his conversation as he puts on his jacket and shoes, as he is walking out the door, and as he is sitting in the driver seat of the car to leave. He has something to say about everything— and our language barrier makes this story impossible to write.
He told me Minnesota is nice— if it weren’t for the snow, he would’ve liked it even more. Grand Avenue is nice. To my dad, most everybody who passes through the shop is kind, welcoming, and are there to do their business and go. There are even some customers who extend acts of kindness beyond what is necessary. There was the late Shirley who helped my parents sign me up for ballet lessons and took me to some of my dance practices. There is Ella and her husband who helped my parents out with legal issues. There is Bea who taught me and all of my sisters piano. There is Chris who offered to help me and my sisters with the college process of financial aid and writing essays because it was all alien to my parents. Both of my parents maintain that the world they live in is kind— and they tell me that most of the people that yell at them are justified. Mistakes happen, my mom said, and people are allowed to be upset.
Most of the time they’re right. Most people are kind, but not all of them.
I remember helping at the shop one day. As I made my way through the store, I admired the suit coats by the back door. I marveled at the wedding and bridesmaid dresses hung on the highest rack to avoid letting the skirts touch the ground. I noticed the pile of clothes my sisters and I had asked our parents to fix that they hadn’t gotten around to yet. I passed by the two full racks of jeans and dress-pants my mother sat by and watched as she worked through 67 pairs of Saint Thomas Academy ROTC uniform pants.
Rainy weather always deterred people from leaving their homes, and the day was slow. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed— and the store bell rang as a scowling older man entered. He stood just barely above my height, yet he exuded the presence of giant. He dropped his coat onto the counter, glared at me and snarled, “The dry-cleaners ruined my coat.”
“Um— how may I help you?” I asked.
“Look at this—” he exclaimed, pointing at the lost button before brandishing a loose button. “I need this fixed, now!”
My dad emerged and spoke to him with ease, smiling and sympathizing with the demanding man. He took the coat to the back room and came out 5 minutes later. But the man had decided 5 minutes was much too long, sprawled himself out on the waiting room chairs,and decided to take a 10 minute phone call. My dad instructed me to bag the coat and ring the man up before he turned and smiled at the newly arrived customer.
When the man came to the front counter, I showed him the coat.
He stared at the newly sewn button, stretched the front of the coat and tossed the coat back down on the table before he turned to me and snapped, “It’s crooked. He sewed it back on crooked.”
I focused on the button, afraid to look the man in the eyes. It was a simple job— my dad made mistakes, but simple jobs like this barely required thinking for him at this point. I turned to my dad who stood up from attending to the other customer to address the red-faced man.
“It is not crooked— I sewed it back exactly where the thread was,” my dad began calmly.
“Nevermind— I’ll get it redone elsewhere— how much is it?” the man scowled, pulling out his wallet, acting like he was taking the high road.
“No— keep your money— I’ll cut it right off and you can get it done somewhere else—”
“Don’t—” the man protested.
“You said it’s crooked— so let me fix that for you,” my dad snapped as he snipped the button back off and slapped the button onto the table beside the coat. “There— go— take your money and go—”
That man was the only customer I know of who my father forcefully turned away. Talking to customers is a full time job at the store. He is the only one, besides my mom, who can speak English fluently enough to work with the customers. The shop has a delicate system— my parents handle all of the customer service: fitting people, ringing up customers, and answering phone calls. My mom has even taken to answering messages on Yelp with my help every now and then. Most of the sewing jobs were relegated to the other employees.
My mom told me that my dad struggled with pain in his feet and legs for a long time. He went to a chiropractor who suggested that maybe the pain was emanating from his spine— and one CRACK later, my dad needed back surgery. During that time, my mom stepped into his role. However, my dad only rested for a month. Once he was able to get himself out of bed and walk without a walker, he returned to the shop. The pain still bothers him today, and he still doesn’t know what’s causing it.
After that, the work world was quiet for the most part. As my sisters and I grew up, Tom’s Tailors and Grand Avenue went to the back of our minds.
But, in 2012, the world was ending and my dad wanted to sell Tom’s Tailors. Neither of my parents will talk to me about this year— and for the longest time I thought all of their fights were about an affair because that’s what broken married people fight about, right? I was 12 and not fluent in Vietnamese— but now I know it in my bones that all their hushed whispers behind closed doors, angry shouting at the dinner table, and the frustrated conversations in the backyard supposedly out of our ear’s reach were about money and the shop.
At the same time, my older sister was a freshman in high school, slated to graduate in 2016. Four more years and my parents would have to think about paying for college. Knowing my dad and his party-conversations and even conversations with customers who had children, the fear of debt was real.
At a certain income level, people get to go to the University of Minnesota for free. I think my dad was convinced that working less would make everything easier.
My mom held on.
With me and my 4 sisters, my cousin, our dog, and the both of them to house and feed and clothe, my mom had to hold on. She was the one to bring my older sister and me to work when we were baby’s just so she could help my dad out in the early years. She was the one who went in to help one day and her water broke but worked through it until my dad could drive her to the hospital. She was the one to take over for him during his surgery. She was the one to reorganize the shop and create a system for the clothing orders. She was the one to fight for the shop, for me and my sisters and for the employees.
My dad works endlessly and is recognized as the face of Tom’s Tailors, but my mom is the backbone, the reason it’s still standing at all.
Anna Chu is a freshman at Macalester College who is still trying to figure her life out.