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People Who Make SA Great: Penner's

When ZZ Top sings about a sharp-dressed man, they probably think about the clothes at one San Antonio shop, because the band's lead singer is a customer. As have been other celebrities, executives and stylish San Antonio men.

If you need a new Guayabera shirt, you need to visit a very old San Antonio store. "The majority of men who wear these enjoy the idea that they don't have to tuck it in,” said Mark Penner, spreading three ornate pleated shirts on a counter. He’s part owner and operator of a family-owned men's clothing store that has anchored a corner of Commerce Avenue downtown for more than a century.

“If the man says he's a large, this shirt’s gonna fit him American size,” Penner said. “It's not a Tommy Bahama that fits like a sack.”

He’s entitled to his opinion. He and his family own Penner's, a 102-year-old men's clothing store that has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, polyester, a major fire and even the age of Amazon. It’s a fourth-generation family-owned business started on this very block by Mark Penner's grandfather Morris, who emigrated from Poland.

"When he was in New York, he worked as a shoemaker for about a year, or a year and a half before he brought over 3 kids,” said Penner, pointing at a wall full of photos and newspaper clippings that chronicle the store’s history.

Before long, the family moved again, this time to San Antonio, where they started selling clothes in 1916.

"First, he had a wagon and a horse and he went from place to place and bought used clothing from homes,” said Penner, describing his grandfather’s earliest venture in the Alamo City. “But instead of selling it from the wagon, he opened up a little store right on the corner here.” The elder Mr. Penner may not have realized it at the time, but he launched a retail institution which would continue to serve San Antonio men style and extreme customer service for more than a century.

Years later, his son Sam inherited the business and started selling new clothes in 1937. Soon, Sam Penner’s two sons Mark and Max joined the family business. A devastating gas fire shut down the business in 1978, but they rebuilt and opened a larger store the next year.

"You get service, you see a friendly smile, they do it right,” said longtime customer Leonidas Cartwright. “It’s very comfortable, they do the tailoring, so if you lose a little weight, they fix it for you, you just feel like you're a family. It's a good spot."

A great spot, in fact, for a custom fit... the store keeps seven tailors busy full-time in a custom tailoring office upstairs, with vintage sewing machine whirring.

"Our tailoring and our delivery service make the difference,” said Penner. “We will deliver, I will deliver.”

And he has plenty of merchandise to deliver. Hats are a specialty here, too, with a large inventory of panama, fedoras and Stetsons in a secret closet off the showroom.

"We sold 53 hats this past Saturday,” Penner said. “Think of that! In one day!"

Penner can't help pitching his merchandise. He points out a rack of luxurious silk shirts. “This is a $94 shirt, but it sells out,” he said. At 72, he's now semi-retired, and coaching the family’s next generation in the art of men's fashion. “Most men wanna come, get their clothes, get excellent service, and get it over with,” he said.

Despite being one of the only remaining local retailers downtown, Penner's is thriving, with a better bottom line last year than the year before, based largely on generations of men who bring in their sons.

“The first time my dad brought me here,” said Albert Gauna, another veteran Penners client, “I was about 15 or 16 years old, and I've been a customer ever since."

It's a pattern for success Penner's hands down to each generation of owners... including the new guys, Mark's nephew Mitchell, his brother and a cousin, the family’s 4th generation running the store.

"I'm very impressed with them,” Penner said, smiling. “They have passion. You have to have passion. Passion makes it work."

A passion for fashion has made this family business work for more than a century... and that's why they're more of the People who Make San Antonio Great.