Clothing store owner John Bohn dies

By Jayson Jacoby December 27, 2013 09:01 am

John B. Bohn
John B. Bohn

By Jayson Jacoby

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If you’d care to understand John Bohn’s legacy you could find it all over Baker County, hanging in the silent darkness of hundreds of closets.

Through his store, Bohn’s Clothing, he was in his way an integral part of milestone days too numerous to count over more than four decades in business.

When a teenage boy knocked on a girl’s door, almost paralyzed with fright at the prospect of escorting her to the homecoming dance, odds are he was wearing a suit that John Bohn sold him.

And her dress, so carefully pressed and primped, might once graced a window of Bohn’s Clothing store on Baker City’s Main Street as well.

His racks — a glorious profusion of styles that’s pretty much disappeared from the rural retail scene — readied Baker County residents not merely for weddings and other celebrations but also for their daily toil in the ponderosa pine forest or the sawmill or the hayfield.

John B. Bohn died on Christmas Eve at Settler’s Park assisted living center.

He was 87.

For anyone who moved to Baker City after the mid 1990s, the story of Bohn’s Clothing might sound farfetched.

The business, which opened in 1950, was the archetype of a different era, to be sure — one in which even a city of 10,000 could support a store that sold, as Bohn’s friend Rocky Brown puts it, “everything from hip waders to women’s dresses.”

And much else of a sartorial nature.

“You didn’t need to go anywhere else — John Bohn had it,” Brown said.

This was especially so for men, as Bohn’s store initially and for many years focused mainly on fulfilling that gender’s fashion needs.

Bohn had the business acumen to understand that such a store could thrive in Baker City.

“He was a shrewd businessman,” Brown said.  “He was such a cornerstone for downtown Baker, and Baker in general, forever.”

Gene Rose, who was among Bohn’s closer friends for 63 years, said one key to Bohn’s success is that he understood his clientiele.

“John figured out very quickly that you’re not going to sell a ton of new suits in Baker,” said Rose, 85. “He specialized in casual clothing and work clothing. He knew where the money was. He wanted his customers to have clothes they they felt comfortable in, and he sold them clothes that did that.”

“John was also a good people person,” Rose said. “He knew how to treat people.”

Outside of the more formal setting of his store, though, Bohn was both a loving friend as well as an accomplished teaser, Rose said.

“He was really good with kids,” Rose said. “My two younger daughters, I don’t think anybody in the world could have been nicer to them.”

Rose, who moved to Baker in 1953 with his wife, Coral (she passed away on Oct. 8 of this year), said they became friends with Bohn and his wife, Mary, almost immediately.

Over the years, as the Roses had five children and the Bohns had four, the families developed a system for each of the births.

“If Mary was in the hospital (giving birth), John would come over to our house and eat with us,” Rose said. “If Coral was in the hospital I would go to over to John and Mary’s.”

Rocky Brown said his father and Bohn were “best pals” for decades.

“Jim and I grew up hunting and fishing those guys (Rose among them), and John was always along,” Rocky said. “He had such a sense of humor.”

That trait revealed itself long before the Browns became acquainted with Bohn.

Jack Wilson, 83, of North Powder, grew up “tagging along” behind his brother, Jim, who was classmates with Bohn at North Powder Elementary.

Jack Wilson said he called his brother, who lives in Walla Walla, Wash., earlier this week to tell him that Bohn had died.

Jack Wilson said his brother reminded him of an incident that happened, as near as Jack can remember, when Bohn was about 8.

Both Wilsons, and Bohn, attended Sunday school at the Methodist Church in North Powder.

One Sunday, for a reason since forgotten if indeed it was ever known, Bohn decided to hid behind the piano that a women in the Methodist congregation played.

She was in the middle of a song when Bohn knocked off a music book from a stack atop the piano.

The falling book briefly disrupted the pianist but she continued to play.

“Pretty soon another book came down,” Jack Wilson said. “The way I remember it, John started to run but the minister grabbed him by one leg, pulled him down the aisle and told him not to come back.”

Whatever his predilections for pranks, Bohn, like most in his generation, was a hard worker, Wilson said.

“He grew up in a time, in the 1930s and ’40s, when we all worked,” Wilson said. “John always had a job every summer putting up hay.”

Wilson said he wasn’t as close with Bohn after Bohn’s family moved to Baker City, but they became reacquainted as adults and were longtime friends and golf partners.

“He was an excellent businessman and was very aware of trends in the clothing business,” Wilson said of Bohn. “Bohn’s in Baker was the place you would go to buy a sportcoat or a suit.”

And not just for people who lived in Baker.

“He had as many out of town customers as in town,” said Pat Leonard of Baker City, who ran Leonard’s Idea Shop in the building adjacent to Bohn’s store for many years.

“His shop was just really nice,” Leonard said.

Pat and her husband, also named John, originally owned an 88-cent store. In 1975 the couple swapped buildings with Bohn. He moved into the larger quarters in the building most recently used as the YMCA fitness center, and the Leonards opened their Idea Shop in the building now occupied by Bella.

Pat Leonard said she and Bohn had a Sunday morning ritual.

Each would show up for work about 7:30 — “a quiet time when I could get a lot done,” Leonard said.

“Along about 8:30 or so John would call and ask me, “do you have the coffee on?’ And he’d come over and we’d sit down and talk about the week’s events.

 “He was a marvelous person, and very intelligent,” Leonard said.

Bohn’s daughter, Jane Bohn of Baker City, said she spoke this week with a former employee, Tom Higgins, who appreciated that even as a high school student he earned $5 an hour at Bohn’s, well above the minimum-wage.

Bohn opened his store on Oct. 1, 1950, at 1917 Main St., the building that later housed Powers Shoes.

He moved the store to 2023 Main St. in 1961.

John and Mary Bohn sold the business to Chris and Joanie Dunn in 1995.

Bohn, who “always looked like he just walked out of a band box,” Leonard said, was certain that men would be more successful in business if they invested more time, and money, in their appearance.

“He wanted to offer Baker nice clothes, and help the men here look nice,” Leonard said. “He had a way of taking some old rancher who needed to be a pallbearer and make him look like a million bucks.”

Bohn’s motto, as it were, Leonard said, was “clothes make the man.”