Mabe’s: Celebrating a century in the family business

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Dave Mabe and his daughter, Christy Mabe Gilmon, stand outside Mabe’s Clothing & Athletic Apparel at 18 S. Main St. in London. The family is celebrating 100 years in business. A celebration is planned for Sept. 13-17.

(Posted Sept. 9, 2021)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

London Mayor Patrick Closser remembers visiting Mabe’s Clothing & Athletic Apparel as a boy to pick up gear for baseball. He got his high school letterman’s jacket there, too. Now, he pops into the store frequently to buy anything from socks to jerseys for his son, Maddoxx, 5, who plays baseball, soccer and basketball.

“It’s one of those generational things where your parents take you there and, when you’re older, you take your children there,” he said.

Customers who have made a family tradition of patronizing the 18 S. Main St. store are supporting a business that knows a thing or two about family tradition. Four generations of Mabes have stood behind the cash register, worked the embroidery machines, and stocked the racks. This year, the family is celebrating a major milestone– 100 years of serving the community.

Christy Mabe Gilmon grew up at the store, hanging out with her father, Dave Mabe, and grandmother, Martha Mabe, after school when London Elementary was a short walk away.

“My grandma taught me how to sew. I learned when I was 10 years old,” said Christy, who now sews the lettermen jackets when time allows as she works alongside her dad.

Dave Mabe (left) began working with his parents, Martha and Robert, at the family-owned business in 1976. He became sole owner in 2010.

Christy, 33, joined the business as an employee in March 2018, taking up where her grandmother left off. Martha worked at the store until her death in 2017, a few months past her 100th birthday.

“After Grandma passed, I knew Dad needed help here. It’s too much for one person, so I left my job in nursing to help keep the business going,” said Christy, who had been working as a registered nurse at Madison Correctional Institution.

Picking up the torch seems to be the way with the Mabes. Raymond M. Mabe got things rolling when he joined Gallagher & Hume as a tailor in 1920; he became a partner in 1921. When Raymond passed away unexpectedly in 1953, his son, Robert, signed on as a partner. Dave Mabe, 63, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming the third generation to get involved in the apparel business, starting as an employee in 1976 and becoming sole owner in 2010.

When asked the secret to the business’s longevity, Dave has a wry answer: “It’s a simple formula, and I’m not going to reveal it because it works and other people need to figure it out.”

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Mickey, one of the resident cats at Mabe’s, hangs out under a rack of athletic apparel. For the past five years, store owner, Dave Mabe, has been finding homes for stray alley cats. Four of them, including Mickey, have found homes at the store. Customers, children and adults alike, often plop down on the floor to pet the felines or walk by the store after hours to interact with the cats who like to lounge in the front windows.

Chatting with Dave about the business reveals some pretty big hints to that secret formula, starting with his love of his customers.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I appreciate what they do for us, so we go out of our way to accommodate them the best we can, to make a better experience for them.”

Todd Eades, London’s fire chief, can attest to Mabe’s customer service. The fire department has been ordering customized shirts from Mabe’s for about 25 years.

“We’ve really enjoyed our relationship with Dave over the years. He’s always open to any new shirt design we come to him with, and he turns it around quickly. He’s always more than helpful,” Eades said.

Another apparent key to the business’s success has been its ability to roll with the times, as well as challenges and opportunities. When Dave’s grandfather joined the business, the store specialized in men’s and boy’s clothing and shoes. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the inventory expanded to include small boys’ and toddlers’ clothing and shoes, women’s wool suits, and cotton sport clothing.

When Dave’s father was bought out of the business in 1968, he started a children’s clothing store named Mabe’s Youth Center. Four years later, he bought the LampPost, thereby adding children’s and women’s clothing to the repertoire. Not long after, when Dave joined the ranks, came the addition of school spirit wear and athletic gear. The operation moved from the west side of Main Street to its current location in 1983. In 1985, following a fire, the store eliminated its men’s and women’s clothing lines and has specialized in spirit wear and athletic gear ever since, with some corporate accounts on the side.

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Mabe’s sells spirit wear and athletic apparel, from hats to jerseys, for the four public schools in Madison County, along with St. Patrick Catholic School in London and Southeastern Local Schools in South Charleston in Clark County.

But with all that said, one could argue that the true secret to Mabe’s longevity and success is the family dynamic.

“Dad passed away in 1985, so I worked with him for about nine years. I worked with Mom from 1976 to 2017–41 years,” Dave said. “We all had our own little niches, so we kind of never got in each other’s way. We never got in an argument or mad at each other. If there was an issue, we worked it out.

“It’s the same now with my daughter. She does the bulk of the work; she should get credit for keeping the company running. She’s a wonderful addition to the company. Her grandparents would be super proud of her.”

Christy is proud to be working with her father and seems to be a natural fit, bantering with customers, looking for new ways to attract business, and even making videos of the store’s resident cats–strays from the alley that Dave takes in and cares for.

“My plan is to stay here and continue to maintain the business. Dad is able to take time off now. It eases the burden on him a little bit,” Christy said.

And just like she did as a child, her children, Avery, 10, and Alexa, 8, hang out among the store’s racks after school–another generation.

Mabe’s 100th Anniversary Celebration
Mabe’s Clothing & Athletic Apparel, 18 S. Main St., London, is celebrating its 100th year of
serving the community. A celebration is planned for Sept. 13-17. Door prizes will be given away daily at 5 p.m.; no purchase is necessary, sign up at the register. Other giveaways are planned, as well. Cake will be served from 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 16. Store hours during the celebration are 11 a.m.-6 p.m.


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