By Brian Messenger
ANDOVER — They would search the world for a particular garment if a customer asked, and occasionally performed house calls, clearing out closets and designing wardrobes from scratch.
Service has always gone hand in hand with style at Kaps, the men's clothing store that's been a fixture in the Merrimack Valley since Elias Kapelson opened a Lawrence haberdashery in 1885.
But after 123 years, including nearly two decades as an anchor business in downtown Andover, Kaps will close March 1, becoming the latest local victim in a tough economy.
"We've taken care of a lot of people," said Al Incollingo, a Kaps employee for nine years. "It's an end of an era, unfortunately. We've all plugged away as well as we could. It just wasn't meant to be."
Kaps moved from Essex Street in Lawrence to Andover in 1990.
In all, four Kaps locations will close after a liquidation sale ends in February, said store owner and Andover resident Jim Kapelson.
Along with the family's "flagship" location at 5 Main St. in downtown Andover, there are Kaps stores in Burlington, Marblehead and Wellesley.
"It's been a good ride," said Kapelson. "I think business in every downtown is difficult. I don't think people have been honest with themselves with how difficult it's been."
Kaps joins Culinary Concepts on Park Street and Alpers Fine Art on Main Street, both downtown businesses that have been forced to close recently.
Citing a rent increase, Sharon Breighner, owner of The Cupcake Boutique on Post Office Avenue, also plans to move her business to another downtown location.
Kapelson said his store's financial difficulties worsened over the last year.
"Everybody's getting whacked," said Kapelson. "I just don't think anybody knows how deep the hole really goes and we're still finding out on a daily basis."
The Kapelson family operated out of several different Essex Street locations in Lawrence over the years, the last of which, 381 Essex St., boasted four stories, a glass entrance, chandeliers and a balcony. The store's move to Andover marked a change to smaller "neighborhood stores."
The family opened a second store in the Burlington Mall in 1979.
Rummaging through a pile of designer jeans marked between 50 percent and 70 percent off, friends Caryn Souza and Suzy Gelerman spent time in downtown Andover yesterday shopping for their husbands.
"This is my favorite store," said Souza, of Andover. "I can't cry over the bargains, but I much rather have (the store) stay in business."
Gelerman, a North Andover resident, said the store keeps records on regular customers, noting size specifications and clothing preferences.
"It's like an institution," she said. "They make you look good."
1885 Elias Kapelson moves from London to Lawrence, opens Essex Street clothing store
1908 Elias' son David, 7, begins working at the store for 12 cents a week
1919 David Kapelson takes over for father
1947 Kaps installs the city's first electronically opening doors
1958 David's son Dick begins working at store
1965 Kaps opens at 381 Essex St., Lawrence
1979 Jim Kapelson opens Kaps store in Burlington Mall
1980s Jim's brothers Jon and Joel begin working at stores
1983 First full-scale women's department opened
1990 Kaps moves to 5 Main St. in downtown Andover
2009 All four Kaps locations to close March 1