Long before Over-the-Rhine was a swanky, gentrified, high-rent, cool kind of zone, it was home to Poley’s Big and Tall Men’s shop, where “big” was a relative term, where the customers were more often “big” than “tall.”
Phil Poley, the friendly 72-year-old guy with a relatively diminutive 38-inch waist who owned the place, defined it this way: “Big is anybody who's a 44-inch waist or more,” says Phil Poley, a friendly 72-year-old man with a relatively diminutive 38-inch waist.
Phil's shop used to be at 1117 Vine Street. It was geared to make big guys feel at home, or at least not so big. The double doors in front opened wide for easy entry. The 20-foot pressed-tin ceilings gave the place a spacious feeling. The dressing rooms were extra-large, so a big guy can maneuver when trying on a pair of dacron-polyester-blend Sansabelts.
Each dressing room had an extra-sturdy bench, so a big guy had a solid surface for sitting when pulling on those Sansabelts, which he would do one leg at a time, just like anybody else.
“A 600-pound guy is not going to fall through these benches,” Phil said.
Phil was showing me around the place, telling me about the Poley family’s role in Big and Tall Men's fashions. Next to the counter, near the underwear, was the tallest belt rack I'd ever seen. The buckles hung from hooks nearly 6 1/2 feet above the floor; even then, the tips of many belts were curled on the carpet.
“My father, Meyer Poley, came to Cincinnati around the turn of the century from Russia,” Phil said.
“He established the first Poley's men's store in 1905 at Fifth and Central with his brother, Sam.”
Phil paused to show me a ''nice pair of jeans,'' an immense set of dungarees, generously tailored to accommodate an 80-inch waist, which was as big as you can get without a special order. The label identified them as ''Sierra Ridge Relaxed Fit'' jeans. The price was $59.50, which was high back in the day, but look at all the denim you got.
“A few years later, Sam moved to Lawrenceburg to open a dry-goods store,” Phil said.
“My father moved to a location a few doors up the street from here, at the corner of Canal and Vine streets. You can see the canal in the photograph on the wall over there. That was before they filled in the canal and turned it into Central Parkway, of course.”
In the shirt department, Phil showed me a nice dress shirt with a 22-inch neck and 37-inch sleeves. It comes with an “expanding collar,” a top button with an elastic attachment that stretches, in case you're swallowing an extra-large bite of food.
“I got into the business in 1945,” Phil said.
“It was my idea to open a shop exclusively for big and tall men. I realized we had a lot of big guys coming in that we couldn't fit. It worked out, too. At one time, we had five ‘Big and Tall’ stores in Cincinnati, Dayton and Lima – along with a mail-order service.”
The tape measures draped over the ends of the Sansabelt racks were 74 inches long. A guy like that, Phil can't reach around him. So he asks the guy to hold one end of the tape while he walks around to the other side of him and takes a reading. A guy like that usually doesn't take offense; most big guys have come to grips with the fact that they're big.
“We don't carry what you'd call fancy clothes,” he said.
“You'll notice that the colors here are mostly conservative. A big man may think pink, but he'll usually wind up with a gray, a navy or a black. Once in a while I order something flashy, like a red sports coat. But they don't sell. I got one now, a 44 extra-long, you can have for half-off.”
Part of me envied Phil. A big guy walks in, and Phil dresses him up in the latest styles, makes him look sharp and helps him feel OK about his bigness. That's got to be a good feeling. He agreed.
The phone rang. A big guy was calling from Pittsburgh. He wanted to know, did Phil have any jeans with the stonewashed look? He was looking for a 50-inch waist and a 32-inch inseam. Stonewashed in a stretch, if Phil has it. If, indeed!