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Revered Twin Cities retailer Barry Bonoff was a business community mensch

techsm5

Barry Bonoff was a venerable Twin Cities retailer who overcame tough times with humor and service to others.

Bonoff, who recently passed away at 91, was a longtime owner of women’s clothier Jackson Graves – and also found ways to serve his community throughout his life. He was witty and empathetic, a smart dresser and an informal mainstay in the business community.

“He was always upbeat,” recalls his daughter, Terri Bonoff, who worked at Jackson Graves from 1979 to 1984. “My dad led by example. He worked the hardest and always cared about his team. “He had great fashion sense. But he let his buyers lead.”

Jackson Graves was a family business, and when called upon by his father, Joseph, Bonoff returned to Minneapolis in 1957 after serving as an Army officer. He led the expansion of the downtown flagship store as well as Southdale’s new location in Edina.

Barry Bonoff eventually took over the company and led it through a 30-year growth period. He led a 1980s initiative to bolster downtown retail – a problem that persists today.

Life wasn’t perfect. There were personal and professional challenges.

Jackson Graves struggled after its Nicollet Mall store closed in the mid-1980s for redevelopment of the south end of the mall. He moved the flagship to the then new downtown area; the store never returned to its former success.

Bonoff closed Jackson Graves in 1988, amid declining sales and pressure from national chains such as Gap and The Limited. The explosion of big-box suburban discounters also played a role.

“I’m very sad,” Bonoff said in a 1988 Star Tribune interview, after it closed the store and fired dozens of employees. “It was a decision that was very difficult.”

This period of financial decline and a difficult divorce put Bonoff to the test. In 1988, he became a consultant and assistant professor of business at the University of St. Thomas.

He’s also been resilient — and forever grateful to his family, friends, and life, recalled Terri Bonoff, a former Minnetonka state senator.

Barry Bonoff remarried to Roberta Bonoff, a former manager of the Jackson Graves store. In 1992, the couple opened clothing stores at the Mall of America and Galleria.

“Going back into retail was the last thing on my mind,” Barry Bonoff recalled in 1992. “But that year…I was gaining weight and getting too happy. And it was driving me crazy.”

He was waking up again at 2 a.m. with business ideas.

UK-based Monsoon, a locally licensed retail franchisor of the Bonoffs, has not been very successful. Barry and Roberta Bonoff closed the business in 1997. Barry again retired.

Roberta Bonoff then served as CEO of Creative Kidstuff for years.

Barry Bonoff continued to serve, known for his causes and generosity. His children remember hearing about someone or seeing a burning building on the TV news. He was rushing to collect and deliver clothing, supplies and encouragement.

“Dad was nice to everyone, no matter what the situation in life was,” said Terri Bonoff, now CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta. Her husband, Matthew Knopf, a former attorney for Dorsey Whitney, is senior vice president and assistant general counsel for Delta Air Lines.

Retired for 20 years, Barry Bonoff volunteered as a reading tutor for struggling students at Gatewood Elementary School in Hopkins. Bonoff’s weekly community service ended after nearly 20 years when COVID-19 emptied schools.

Teacher Amanda VanWye, who became a friend of the family, and her students once produced a community song-and-dance program in Bonoff’s honor: “Read Barry Read.”

Bonoff, who loved to read, knew that literacy was essential to a successful education and career. Even as he battled dementia in the late 80s, someone was driving Bonoff to school a few days a week. He worked patiently and happily with the students.

He was a positive and encouraging mentor, at work and at school.

Hundreds of people gathered in late December at Temple Israel in Minneapolis to say goodbye to Barry Bonoff. He gave a good reputation to businesses and community services.

techsm5

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