Tri-City Clothing a decades-long destination for defining duds
by Pat Kinney
on Wednesday, January 11, 2023
WATERLOO – It’s been 40-plus years since Harry and Renee Carson’s business, which started out of the back of an automobile, opened up shop in a building on old Logan Avenue.
It’s been eight years since the Carsons had to re-start and relocate that business after a devastating fire a few weeks before Christmas.
But the Carsons’ business, Tri-City Clothing, is still a trend setter, in fashion and much more – and right in the heart of downtown Waterloo.
Chaveevah Ferguson (left) interviews Renee Carson of Tri-City Clothing of the Grout Museum District's "Black Stories Collective" project
It’s one of the longest-running Black-owned businesses currently in operation in the Cedar Valley, and possibly the state.
The Grout Museum District recently interviewed Renee Carson about the history of the business. The video recorded oral history interview is part the Grout’s “Black Stories Collective” exhibit and oral history project.
One element that exhibit is to document the history of Black-owned businesses, of which Tri-City cloting is a big part.
Having been in its present location at 305 E. Fourth St. downtown ever since the fire, it is a business which has crossover appeal in various segments of the community and has a nationwide client base for mail-order sales.
Its solid base of community customer support has sustained it from the beginning, through good and lean times. But starting up was a challenge.
“A lot of the main challenge was we could not get a loan; we could not get help from anybody. We did everything out of our pocket,” Renee Carson said. “It was just hard. We jumped through all the hoops that we were told we had to do to get the loan and do it the way we wanted to. But we couldn’t get the loan. We had to do everything ourselves.
“Race played a lot in it,” she said. “There was always an excuse. Everything they asked us to do, we did, but we still couldn’t get any help.”
But their clientele in the community supported them, she said.
“We listened to the community as to what they wanted, and that’s what we tried to supply,” Renee said.
Tri-City’s clientele is broad now, she said. “We have a pretty good mixture of both – the African-American community and the white community.” There’s also a mix of various ethnic populations. “It’s just a diversity of people right now.”
What distinguishies Tri-City, Renee said is “We try to make it affordable, and we listen to what they tell us they want. We try to be pleasant to everyone.”
And they give back. “We don’t advertise in the communty what we do. We just give,” he said. “We like to help out in all kinds of ways, but we don’t advertise what we do.”
Tri-City has a variety of items one can’t normally get in other stories – like, for example, merchandise for people who still like to put on their “Sunday best” for church. “We try to keep up with the high fashion and try to bring it back to Waterloo,” Renee said, often having the latest trends before local residents ask for it.
“We do a lot of church stuff,” Renee said. “A lot of ladies like to wear the big hats and so forth, and we do that.”
The fire, of course, was “pretty devastating,” Renee said. Harry was at the business and Renee was away. “I didn’t see it until the next day,” she said. She was on her way to her other job with the Waterloo Schools at Kittrell Elementary School, and decided to stop. Harry tried to dissuade her.
“Then when I saw it, I just lost it,” she said. “It was everything we had worked so hard for. Everything was just gone. And then you think about, ‘Am I going to be able to start over again?’ Especially when we couldn’t get any help when we opened the business.
“But God’s been good to us,” she said. “I was ready to give it up. To see everything gone was just devastating. Took a toll on me. All I can give is glory to God, because we were able to start it over again.”
The business reopened in its current location in 2015. She likes the current location better, but she adds bluntly, “The challenge is the parking. I love the location. We get a lot of walk throughs. A lot of people are surprised because the either didn’t know where they went; some thought they had closed.
Pictured from left to right are Johnathan Jones, Renee Carson and Harry Carson of Tri-City Clothing at their location at 305 E. Fourth St. Not pictured is Shatora Jones who operates a separate women's apparel location.
Their daughter, Shatora Jones, to whom they’ve passed the torch of running the business, is planning an anniversary commemoration.
Business has picked up a bit in the new location, Renee said, simply because folks are more likely to come downtown.
They are currently leasing from JSA Development. Eventually, they’re considering moving into their own building. They have a women’s apparel shop in a smaller location they own near Peoples Community Health Clinic and are considering expanding that space, but waiting to see how business goes first.
Shatora’s husband Jonathan, a photographer, and Renee and Harry’s grandchildren also help out with the business. “I’m trying to get that work ethic into them,” she said of the grandkids.
For others starting out in business, Renee said, “My advice is do your research; make sure you have you (business) plan” and be there with regular hours and quality service.
“You have to listen to what your customers want,” she said.
And, having worked through some health issues herself, Renee said, it takes a lot of determination and faith.
"Come down and support us. We're still here," she said. "Come visit us. We're just glad to be a part of Waterloo."
The Grout Museum District invites businesses and business professionals to tell their story as part of the Black Stories Collective project by contacting Chaveevah Ferguson at email@example.com or Pat Kinney at Pat.Kinney@gmdistrict.org.