By Alexander Germanis
No article of clothing has as long a lasting legacy as fur. Animal skins and fur were the first things to be used by mankind to protect them from the environment. Thousands of years later, furs are still being used because they are still the best at what they do.
Proudly carrying the legacy of fur into the 21st century, Jeff Broms, owner and operator of Broms Furs and Fashions in Peoria Heights, is also carrying the legacy of his family’s history in the industry.
Lee Broms Furs…and Son
In 1949, Jeff’s father, Lee, was brought to Peoria by Bergner’s to run their fur department. After 11 months, Lee found a little fur shop for sale at 404 Fulton Street and decided to go into business for himself. “That’s how the legacy starts,” Jeff declares.
The day Jeff was born in 1956, his father instantly welcomed him to the family business—whether he wanted it or not. “On the glass it said ‘Lee Broms Furs,’” Jeff shares, recalling a Polaroid image taken of the storefront the fateful day of his birth. “He had a big white piece of cardboard taped underneath it that said, ‘…and Son.’ It was written in the stars that I was coming into the business.”
Jeff jokes his father used him as cheap child labor during his upbringing. Put to work nailing out skins, he was happy to help. “What boy didn’t want to hammer and nail and pound?” he asks. Soon he was cleaning furs, making gift boxes, and learning the trade as he put in daily hours throughout grade school.
Inheriting his father’s workaholic attitude, Jeff got into a coop program his junior year in high school, working from noon onward every day at the store, which was then at 2001 Knoxville.
But college was calling and so was the sea. “I went to Bradley University (my father didn’t want me to go, but my mother insisted) and I set up my classes so I could still work at the store,” he says. “But I wanted to be an oceanographer. I watched Jacques Cousteau and was fascinated; I took all the classes I could for oceanography.”
When Lee had a heart attack during Jeff’s sophomore year, however, Jeff’s dreams of exploring the depths, well, sank. “I dropped out of Bradley to run the store,” he remembers. “I knew what I was doing, but when I needed assistance I had my mother. My dad eventually got better, but I was already so involved I never looked back.”
Jeff’s upbringing may not have been ideal and his father’s particular brand of tough love acted like a tenderizer on a piece of meat. Instead of making Jeff bitter, he simply improved, more easily seeing the lighter side of life. He had also been better prepared to run the business entirely on his own. In 1982, he bought his father out. “I kept him on as a consultant because I needed someone to beat me up on a regular basis,” he laughs.
In 2004, after a number of buyouts and closings of their competition in Peoria, Broms Furs and Fashions found itself to be the proverbial last man standing.
Luxury With Low Overhead
“Today my name might be one of the most respected in the industry (maybe because of my age),” Jeff states proudly. “I’m well known for always buying quality skins and having quality workmanship.”
Quality does not need to go hand-in-hand with exorbitant cost, Jeff reveals. By purchasing smaller numbers of skins from manufacturers who can’t utilize them (200 to 400 skins) he is able to purchase them for far less money and, in turn, passes those savings on to the customer.
Another way Jeff keeps his overhead low is by paying himself a sweatshop wage. “When my father started, he was making $1.25 a week. So he would make a mink stole and it would take about a week to do it.” When he presented the finished piece, “He would say, ‘Here’s the cost of the skins and the cost of my labor was $1.25.’”
“When I was working for my father in high school I was making 25 bucks a week, which was about a buck an hour,” he chuckles. “So I use that philosophy.”
But he makes sure every one of his customers understands exactly what they’re paying for and why his pieces are so less expensive than those big stores but they’ll still get the highest quality furs available.
Save the Environment With Fur
“Everybody is looking to save the environment, so if you do, you should buy and wear fur,” Jeff posits. “It’s a renewable resource, it’s biodegradable, and it’s recyclable. What they need to do is put a ban on fake fur or put an environmental tax on it.”
The fake fur industry uses plastics and oils, whereas real fur uses neither. The environmentally conscious younger generation is actually driving the real fur industry now. “If they come and buy something, they don’t even want a plastic bag over it,” Jeff shares. “They just want to throw it over their arm and take it out. And if they’re not filling up a bag, they’ll just put the coat in their arms and carry it out. I’m really impressed with that.”
That isn’t to say Jeff does not face adversity on a regular basis. The day after Thanksgiving is know as Fur Free Friday in some circles and Broms Furs finds itself the focal point of protesting picketers.
Again, Jeff’s sense of humor weathers the storm. “One year, a guy pulls up in his BMW to picket me and gets his sign out of his trunk,” Jeff recollects, chuckling. “Me being the smart aleck that I am, I call out, ‘Hey, are those imitation leather seats in your car?’ He bows his head, puts the sign back in his car, gets back in, and drives away.”
“I’ve got to put humor into everything because life is way too short,” he adds. “They say it’s good to laugh and cry everyday. I don’t understand why the crying. But if you laugh so hard that you cry, it’s a good thing.”
I Just Want You to Be Happy
While the Broms Fur legacy began with Lee, it will end with Jeff. He has no desire for any of his four wonderful children to inherit the business, “Because I don’t want them to have to work this hard,” he says. “With the season starting, I’m up to 90 hours a week.”
Nevertheless, Jeff’s parents left their legacy in good, well-prepared hands. “My father taught me the fur business,” he says. “My mother taught me how to sell, how to be honest, how to explain things to people, and—probably the most important—never force a sale. If they’re not happy with it, they’re not going to wear it.”
And that happiness starts and ends with the quality of the fur. “I’d rather have people say, ‘Where did you get that coat?’ rather than ‘Where in the hell did you get that coat?’” Jeff laughs. “I just want the customer to be happy. That’s always been important.”
Broms Furs & Fashions has been an industry leader for 70 years. To see their latest inventory of furs or to repair or restyle your old furs, stop in and see them today. Broms Furs is located at 924 E. Glen Avenue; Peoria Heights, IL. They can also be reached by phone at 309-691-7330 or on the web at bromsfurs.com.