After more than a century in business, St. Paul leather goods retailer J.W. Hulme has closed its doors.
The company, which was founded in St. Paul in 1905, operated a manufacturing facility on West Seventh Street for decades and sold its products online until it eventually opened a Grand Avenue storefront in 2019. The retailer announced at the end of September that it was closing and a couple of weeks later announced an online liquidation sale.
“It is a difficult day for us as we get ready to close our doors,” the store wrote in a Facebook post dated Nov. 7. “Today is the last day to shop our liquidation sale before we close for good.”
Named after John Willis Hulme, the company got its start specializing in canvas awnings and tents, said Chuck Bidwell, a minority owner of J.W. Hulme who bought the company in 2003.
Chairman Chuck Bidwell and President Jen Guarino in the J.W. Hulme leather room where pieces are stamped and cut Sept. 29, 2010, in St. Paul. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
“Think of all the homes along the beautiful avenues of St. Paul around World War I, awnings were extremely important to block out the summer sun,” Bidwell said.
When he took over, Bidwell said the retailer was selling a small line of hunting equipment, such as duffel bags and backpacks made out of canvas. With the help of the marketing team and the “wonderful family of employees,” Bidwell said they were able to turn J.W. Hulme into the luxury leather brand it is known for today.
Although he is no longer at the helm, Bidwell is still a minority owner in the company and said on Wednesday that he was shocked to learn about the closures.
“I was surprised to see that they were totally closing down,” Bidwell said, noting that he knew first-hand about the struggles of the company, such as fairly pricing leather products for both consumers and the business.
Now, the storefront sits empty.
Olympus Capital Investments, a private equity company based in Morristown, N.J., invested in the company in 2009, becoming the majority owner.
Nearly 10 years later, Olympus Capital made the call to close the St. Paul manufacturing plant and moved J.W. Hulme’s production to Minneapolis-based firm Softline Brand Partners, which has manufacturing plants in the U.S. and overseas.
“Our sales base hasn’t grown to the point where we ourselves can keep the factory efficient and full,” Dean Vanech, chairman and CEO of Olympus Capital Investments, told the Pioneer Press in 2018. “I bought the business nine years ago because I wanted to preserve U.S. manufacturing jobs. It is my aspiration to make as much of our product in America still.”
J.W. Hulme opened a new store Friday, April 5, 2019, on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. (Andy Rathbun / Pioneer Press)
Less than a year after closing its West Seventh Street facility and showroom, J.W. Hulme opened its first retail store at 867 Grand Ave. in the spring of 2019.
The 880-square-foot store sold J.W. Hulme’s leather goods along with products from Minnesota companies such as Faribault Mill and Wit and Delight. The Grand Avenue location also had its own monogramming machine and coffee bar.
Shortly after the opening of the brick-and-mortar store, the retailer’s ownership switched back to Minnesotan hands in the form of Eden Prairie-based iMedia Brands.
iMedia Brands, which acquired J.W. Hulme in November 2019, is also known for operating ShopHQ, a TV shopping network.
Seemingly out of the blue, the retailer announced in September, “We have made the difficult decision to close our flagship store on Grand Ave., in St. Paul.”
While no explanation was offered, the retailer wrote on Facebook, “It’s always hard to say goodbye to something we love.”
Chris Jensen, president of the Grand Avenue Business Association, said he would like to see another local small business move into J.W. Hulme’s space.
Jensen said the business association receives weekly inquiries about smaller leases from local business owners as larger big box retailers are struggling to stay open on Grand. Just this week, Pottery Barn announced that it will leave its storefront on Grand Avenue early next year.
Representatives from J.W. Hulme and iMedia Brands did not return a request for comment.
“Thank you for being a part of our J.W. Hulme legacy,” the retailer wrote in its farewell message.
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