Service with a smile: Duchnicki recalls over 45 years at McTaggarts

Not many people can say they’ve spent their whole lives working at the same job. Fewer still can say they still enjoy what they’ve been doing for close to 46 years just a couple of weeks before they retire.
But then, Tom Duchnicki, who’s retiring from McTaggarts here on May 28, is one-of-a-kind in the local retail community.
“You know, I started when I was in high school, never thinking I would ever hang in this long,” Duchnicki said. “I had a high school teacher [Burt Bridge] who approached me and asked if I’d like a job.
“I said, ‘What kind of a job?’ And he said he had a few friends at McTaggarts and they were hiring, and I should go see them.
“I didn’t know this teacher very well at all. But I went, and the rest is history.
“It was kind of a strange beginning, but it worked,” added Duchnicki. “I could probably honestly say that I liked every facet of the job. From cleaning out the basement—the menial things we had to do—to waiting on customers and working with clothes.
“Mind you, I always liked clothes and thought that to be well- and nicely-dressed is important. And I still do. That’s how it all began.”
Right from high school, Duchnicki kept on working at McTaggarts, moving his way from stock boy to manager over the course of a decade or so.
Of course, over the past 40-plus years, Duchnicki has seen many fashions come and go—from bell-bottom jeans and leather jackets to parachute pants and leather ties.
“When I first started, we sold suits,” he remarked. “You have to keep in mind, I started at the very bottom. Dusting off boxes, cleaning out the basement, and all those things that needed to be done.
“By the time I got into the fashion, I was green as the grass. I didn’t know anything about fashions of the day,” he admitted.
“At the same time, I remember when we sold suits. Drapes were very big, when you had a very narrow bottom—like about a 14-inch or 12-inch bottom. You almost needed a shoehorn to get your pants on.
“And a great big balloon knee that was 26 inches across,” he recalled.
“The jackets were longer and so on. Suits were all made to measure. Everyone had their own little quirky requirements and style and so on.
“It was really a lot different than it is today.”
Duchnicki noted there was never really any style over the years that he disliked. But one fashion trend did stick in his mind.
“I don’t know if I’d call them bad, but there were the days in the ’60s and ’70s, and even into the ’80s, when polyester came in,” he said. “I think there was not a fabric that was as well-received as polyester. And polyester we use to this day.
“The fact it stretched, it moved, it was virtually indestructible. It was washable, and it came in a multitude of colours,” he added.
“When I think back to the bright-coloured plaid pants we used to wear, flare bottoms, the big belt loops, and so on, it was just fun. It was a hoot to wear those clothes.
“The colours would just knock your socks right off,” Duchnicki smiled. “And we would wear them.
“Fashion always tends to revolve and come back, but it never quite comes back exactly the way it was so you can’t wear your old clothes!” he laughed.
Duchnicki said there certainly have been changes to the retail field over the past 46 years, but some things never change.
“There’s more information available through the technology we have,” he noted. “From the ordering of the merchandise to the amount that’s available to the selection available and so on.
But you know, at the end of the day, generally, people still like service.
“I think it’s nice to walk into a store and a customer can talk to trained staff who know the business and can sincerely help the customer,” he said. “I think the customers are still very appreciative of that.
“I think some businesses have kind of drifted away from that,” Duchnicki remarked. “The way a lot of stores are set up, the personal touch isn’t there. It’s self-serve.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find a salesperson, and it’s unfortunate. A lot of people are looking for help and they can’t find it.
“I know that customer service is what this business [McTaggarts] was founded on,” Duchnicki stressed. “I remember my dad said that if you wanted something good, a good set of clothes, you go to McTaggarts and you get taken care of real well.
“You’d get quality and service that was hard to find then, and is even a little harder to find these days.”
Duchnicki recalled the days when Roy McTaggart would see bush workers come in to the store in the fall and load up on clothes for the work season.
“They’d say, ‘See you in the spring!’ and they’d come back and pay for what they got in the fall,” he remarked.
He noted that level of customer service and trust also is reflected in the fact the Scott Street store is possibly the only one in town that still has in-store accounts for regular customers.
Duchnicki also has seen changes as far as the business landscape in Fort Frances goes.
“The ’80s were probably the busiest years,” he said. “The town was full. We had lots of hotels, gas stations, restaurants, a theatre. Everybody seemed to busy.
“The selling area was not as concentrated as it is now,” he noted. “There were businesses all the way down Mowat. And on Portage, right to Tommy Reid’s motel.
“The ’80s just were busy. It was a good time,” Duchnicki added. “Not that this isn’t a good time.
“When I look back and I see how Scott Street has changed, the folks that have come and gone out of business, we all shared a common goal,” he said. “We all worked to keep the street alive and vibrant and different. Try to take care of the people that came down.
“There’s still a lot of successful people downtown even though the selling area is more concentrated. We just have to work at it a little differently,” he reasoned.
“The competition is a little different now. It’s a lot broader, we’re competing with people travelling a lot more, people shopping on the Internet—people are just more worldly today.
“It’s a whole global thing that’s a factor now.”
But after all these years, Duchnicki confessed he “was never unhappy on this job.”
“I’m leaving on such a good note,” he enthused. “I love the work, I love working with the clothes. I get excited every time there’s a season change. When we get new things in, I probably get as excited as I did 25, 30 years ago.
“I’ve also been blessed with good people to work with,” he added. “My partners are second to none. We all get along. Not to say we don’t have our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we resolve our differences.
“We ask ourselves, ‘What’s best for the company?’ And when that’s answered, everything else gets back into focus.
“I’ve always had good people, good staff,” he noted. “I found that when you have good staff, and you treat the customers well, everything else just falls into place.”
As for what he’ll do with all his free time, Duchnicki said he doesn’t have any definite plans, but no doubt will be spending a lot of time at his cabin on Rainy Lake, on the links at Kitchen Creek, or visiting his family, specifically his daughter, her husband, and their two children in Portland, Ore.
And while he won’t be working there anymore, Duchnicki still will be dropping by McTaggarts to say “Hi” every once and a while.
“I spend a lot of time with this staff. I love them dearly,” he smiled. “We’re not going to lose touch.”