Just Doing It: Four Generations Later, Mincer’s Still a Community Staple

August 16, 2021 By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

It was September 1990, and with the “Just Do It” Nike advertising campaign that had started two years earlier still sweeping the country, Mincer’s UVA Imprinted Sportswear owner Mark Mincer – following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who made the store an institution on The Corner, the shopping-and-bar district adjacent to the University of Virginia – had an idea. It would eventually involve his future wife, a last-minute trip to the mall, a flat tire, his mother and, arguably, the biggest victory in University of Virginia football history.

Mincer, who graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce in 1985, wanted to create a T-shirt commemorating the Cavalier football team’s first-ever victory over Clemson University.

To do so, he needed to get a better look at the “Just Do It” logo, and that’s where Tara Speakman, a third-year UVA student from Rhode Island who didn’t know a whole lot about UVA sports, came in.

Speakman, who had worked part-time at Mincer’s for all of three days, was dispatched to a sporting goods store at the nearby Fashion Square Mall to procure a “Just Do It” Nike shirt.

However, somewhere along the way, the car she borrowed from Mincer got a flat tire. This led to both Mincer – and his mother – having to come pick her and the car up.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t a great way to start a new job. The project, though, was not to be thwarted.

Soon, newly created T-shirts, sporting the phrase “Just Did It” along with the final score of the game – UVA 20, Clemson 7 – made their way onto Mincer’s shelves and wound up being huge sellers.

Five years later, after Speakman said “I do” to Mincer, wedding guests received T-shirts that said, “Mark & Tara Just Did It.”

More than 25 years later, the Charlottesville couple is still doing it.

The Mincers, who have four children – Cal, Bailey, Sydney and Amanda (who goes by A.J.) – have navigated challenges brought on by the pandemic and have kept the family business going strong. Sadly, it’s something that other Corner mainstays, such as The College Inn, Michael’s Bistro and Littlejohn’s Deli, have been unable to do.

But lately the Mincer family has been facing a much different, more daunting challenge. In October, Mark was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of cancer that begins in the brain.

Mark was sitting at the dinner table one evening when he suddenly realized that he was having trouble cutting his food.

“I said to [Tara] and my daughter, ‘Something’s not working here,’” Mincer said. “They said, ‘Maybe you’re having a stroke.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’m having a stroke.’

“So we go to the hospital and they say, ‘You’re not having a stroke.’ I was like, ‘See, I knew I wasn’t having a stroke.’ They said, ‘However, you’ve got this giant tumor and you need surgery tomorrow.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure you have the right file?’”

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Tara, left, and Mark Mincer, right at their wedding in 1995
Tara, left, and Mark Mincer, made T-shirts for their wedding guests that said, “Mark & Tara Just Did It” – a play on an idea that Mark had following the UVA football team’s 1990 win over Clemson. (Contributed photo)

Three days later, in an 11½-hour surgery, a UVA Health surgeon removed a 5x5x3-centimeter tumor from Mincer’s brain. The surgeon, who had been hoping to take out at least 75% of the mass, removed 95% of it – so the surgery was considered a success.

Still, the prognosis isn’t good. Doctors told Mincer that 50% of patients with his condition can live 14 months, while the other 50% don’t make it that long.

Remarkably, the Mincer family has managed to maintain a positive attitude.

“We’re lucky that we live here in Charlottesville and we have such excellent health care at UVA,” Tara Mincer said. “One of the things we don’t worry about is whether we’re getting good enough care. That’s been huge. Our team is excellent, his doctors are excellent. From the moment we arrived at UVA, we’ve been really happy with how well his health care has gone.

“And we have an amazing support group, which has been huge. We’re lucky that we don’t have a lot of the worries that a lot of cancer patients do have.”

Following the surgery, Mincer underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Since then, he’s been able to exercise, going on daily walks with friends, family, business associates and lacrosse players he used to coach in middle school, at Monticello High School and at the YMCA. He logged 113 miles last month, and has helped resume operating the Mincer’s locations on the Corner and at The Shops at Stonefield remotely.

“Initially, it was awful news, devastating,” said Cal, Mincer’s eldest child, “but basically every turn since then has been good. For a bad thing, he’s been doing great.”

Amid a din of cicadas, Mark Mincer sat on the back deck of his home in Keswick recently and discussed the past, present and future of Mincer’s.

“Somebody told me that 95% of family businesses don’t make it to the third generation, and now we’re well on our way to our fourth generation,” Mincer said. “I’m proud that we have been able to keep that going.”

Mincer’s grandfather, Robert W. Mincer, started the business just after World War II ended. A large supply of military-issued smoking pipes had made its way back to the United States. That lessened the demand for them and led to him being laid off from his job as a foreman at a pipe factory in Long Island, New York.

At the suggestion of colleagues who believed students in a college town would be able to afford pipes, Mincer decided to open his own smoke shop. He considered doing so in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Lexington, Virginia, before deciding Charlottesville would be the perfect spot for Mincer’s Humidor.

Robert Mincer and his wife, Clara, came to Charlottesville in the summer of 1948, leasing a roughly 100-square-foot, ground-floor space, while living in an upstairs expanse – and renting spare bedrooms to students – that would later become Michael’s Bistro.

In the summer of 1954, they moved the shop to its current location on The Corner, at the corner of University and Elliewood avenues.

The transition to selling non-smoking-related products happened gradually over time and was based on customer demand, according to Mincer.

Old image of Mark Mincer and his father, Robert H. Mincer stand outside of Mincer's for a photo
Mark Mincer and his father, Robert H. Mincer, transformed Mincer’s from a pipe store to what it is today. (Contributed photo)

Mincer’s used to serve as the City of Charlottesville’s Western Union agent, and, as a high school student, Mark Mincer regularly delivered telegrams.

“At one time we were the biggest record dealer between [Washington] D.C. and Raleigh because of the student body,” Mincer said. “We sold magazines, newspapers, school supplies like pens, pencils, notebooks and legal pads and books.”

Above the record displays in Mincer’s were pegboards. Hanging from 36 pegs were nine T-shirt choices that came in four sizes.

“It was very different,” Mark Mincer said. “The student body was all male in coats and ties, and T-shirts and sweatshirts were not like they are now. They were basically just white or gray, and you wore them to gym class and not for any other type of activity.”

In 1970, Mincer’s grandfather purchased the building, which also included the University Sport Shop and the Virginian restaurant.

A turning point in the store’s history came in 1976, when the UVA men’s basketball team won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in Landover, Maryland.

“It was a big deal,” Mincer said. “It was the only time we’d ever won.

“We sold just one little orange T-shirt – $3.95 for adults and $2.95 for kids. It said ‘1976 ACC Champs’ and had a basketball and sort of like a Burger King crown on the basketball.”

Former UVA Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage, who had just arrived in town that summer to join the men’s basketball team’s coaching staff, remembers the hoopla.

“Folks were still reveling with memories of that championship, and everybody wanted to get something with UVA basketball on it,” Littlepage said. “Mincer’s was the place to go.”

When Harrisonburg High School basketball star Ralph Sampson arrived on Grounds in 1979, a change in the focus of the business became even more obvious.

“Even though we didn’t win the ACC or NCAA, we still won a lot of games and had a lot of national TV appearances and magazine appearances, and there was just a lot of media attention focused on UVA, which helped demand in general for clothing and gifts,” Mincer said. “Then George Welsh arrived and turned football around.”

One of Mincer’s fondest memories from his time as a student was attending the football team’s 1984 Peach Bowl game in Atlanta, the program’s first bowl appearance.

“I remember in the fourth quarter when Purdue [University] had to punt for the last time and we got the ball back to run out the clock,” Mincer said. “Our whole side of the stadium stood up and started cheering – and I started crying …

Black and white photo of Mark Mincer holding a sign that reads We Got Ralph outside of the Rotunda
Mark Mincer, like many Cavalier fans, was overjoyed when basketball star Ralph Sampson made his decision to attend UVA. (Contributed photo)

“Rooting for a team all your life, and then they finally get to a bowl game, which you didn’t think they could do. And to win …”

Memories like those made Mincer’s decision to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps relatively easy.

In 1985, just as Mincer was graduating from UVA, his grandfather and father elected not to extend the lease of the University Sport Shop. And that fall, Mincers expanded into the University Sport Shop space.

“I don’t know that it was always my plan, but having lived here all my life …I liked living in Charlottesville,” Mincer said. “When it came time to make a choice, it seemed like the best decision.”

Especially after the football team became the No. 1-ranked team in the country in 1990.

“That was the biggest year we ever had,” Mincer said. “We couldn’t believe we sold so much. We didn’t think we’d ever reach that level again, and we didn’t for a long time.”

Tara Mincer’s first day on the job was the day before the Clemson game. That day, on the sidewalk just outside the store, she gave fans “Beat Clemson” tattoos.

A psychology major, she had only started working at the store due to a unusual set of circumstances. A banker in Rhode Island had embezzled $12 million, wreaking havoc on the state’s banking system and tying up her parents’ money for 18 months.

“I was feeling really guilty about it, because here I was in Charlottesville having a good time at school,” Tara Mincer said. “I needed to do something to try and contribute.”

In the days before the game, she walked up and down the streets on the Corner filling out job applications. Mincer’s just happened to be the place that hired her.

After UVA beat Clemson, Tara watched Mark’s “Just Did It” shirts sell like hotcakes. Five years later, she married him. A year after that, Cal was born.

Tara, who has worked on and off for the store while raising her children, said Mark’s knack for retail has always amazed her.

She recalled a season-long promotion from 2009, “Scoreboard Special,” in which every item in the store was discounted based on how many points the football team scored in its game that week. Of course, nobody was counting on UVA going off for 47 points in a homecoming weekend win over Indiana University.

“Everything was 47% off and the whole store was an absolute zoo. … I was there for the collateral damage,” Tara said, laughing. “The whole place was just wiped out.

“At the end, a couple ties hanging from pegs was about all that was left.”

Mark is the first to admit all his ideas haven’t been great ones. That, he said, is the beauty of retail – you learn from mistakes.

One such mistake occurred in the mid-1970s when Mincer’s tried to sell UVA spring break T-shirts.

As it turned out, “You don’t get a spring break shirt from where you’re from. You get a spring break shirt from where you went,” Mincer said. “You want a shirt that says, ‘Daytona’ or ‘South Padre’ or ‘New Orleans’ or wherever you went.

“We took a bath on those spring break shirts,” said Mincer, grinning.

Over the last decade, the success of several UVA sports programs has undoubtedly played a role in the store’s success.

In 2014, the men’s basketball team won its first ACC championship since 1976. The baseball team won the College World Series in 2015. There were also NCAA championships in soccer, tennis and lacrosse.

And then the Cavalier men’s basketball team won its first NCAA title in 2019.

The day after UVA’s victory over Texas Tech in the championship game, fans began forming a line outside the store several hours before the doors opened.

When Cal Mincer reflected on the delirious aftermath – which included having to turn off the ringer on the store’s phone because of the overwhelming demand – he had the look of someone who had just completed a triathlon.

For several weeks, Cal Mincer worked 12- to 14-hour days, filling both in-store and online orders, barely having enough time to scarf down his lunch.

“I’ve never been so exhausted,” he said.

While Mincer’s and UVA have no direct business relationship, the University earns money through Mincer’s via licensing royalties with Mincer’s vendors, according to Mark Mincer.

Mincer’s has also been a Virginia Athletics Foundation supporter since 1971.

“The impact that they have had on how people view the University of Virginia, and how they have serviced the local community, has just been remarkable,” Littlepage said.

Mincer’s makes regular donations to UVA student organizations, local schools and other programs in and around Charlottesville, with live theater being one of Mark’s passions.

And over the years, Mincer’s has employed countless UVA students, providing them not only with extra income, but invaluable business experience.

“I don’t think people realize how much he cares for his employees,” said Mincer’s General Manager Chris Hendricks, who has been working at the store since he was a first-year student at UVA in 1989. “He will go out of his way to help someone out who doesn’t have all the life experiences he has. He’s driven people to the bank to open their first savings account. He’s helped people who didn’t understand how a trading account works. He sits down with people for hours and gives them advice. The people who work for him are like his children.”

The family atmosphere that Mincer has nurtured is one of the big reasons why Hendricks and fellow employee Elizabeth Pitts, a 2003 alumna, said they never wanted to work anywhere else.

UVA branded clothing in Mincer's
Cal Mincer says Mincer’s designs are what separates them from internet competitors, who often use a template to mass-produce merchandise. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Pitts said Mincer is like a granddad to her two kids. “Even though we’re not blood-related, it’s like we’re all one big family,” she said.

Hendricks worked for Mark’s father, Robert H. Mincer – a 1958 UVA alumnus who also earned his degree from McIntire – prior to working for Mark. This fall he’ll begin his 33rd year at the store.

“Mark has been like a brother to me my whole life,” said Hendricks, who graduated from UVA in 1993. “He has been the biggest draw of staying here all these years. He’s probably my best friend in addition to being my boss.”

A wry smile came across Mark Mincer’s face when he was asked about some of the things that have helped him be so successful in carrying on the family business.

“The location has helped a lot – I mean you can’t move the Rotunda,” said Mincer, with a laugh.

“And I think the fact that we’ve been there for so long. There’s that feel-good component of ‘I used to come here when I was a kid’ or ‘My mom and dad used to come here’ – I think those things matter.”

Mincer said he has always tried to keep things simple.

“You look at what you have and see how it’s selling,” he said. “The things that are doing well, you reorder. The things that aren’t doing as well, you reduce the price and you move on.

“My grandfather used to say, ‘We’re not running a museum here. Don’t fall in love with your merchandise.’ I must have heard that 100 times.”

Interestingly, sports-specific T-shirts – such as ones for basketball or football – only account for a small portion of Mincer’s overall sales, according to Cal, who, since graduating from Elon University three years ago, has been working at the stores alongside Hendricks and Pitts.

Cal said Mincer’s designs are what separates them from internet competitors, who often use a template to mass-produce merchandise for a large number of universities.

“We live in Charlottesville, we know Charlottesville and have been working with customers who have liked UVA for so long,” he said. “We know a lot better what works for UVA and what doesn’t.

“You don’t sell the same things to UVA fans that you sell to Oregon fans, that you sell to Arizona fans.”

Over the years, Mark Mincer said he has declined opportunities to open stores in other college towns, including in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Blacksburg.

For one, he didn’t want to spend any time away from family. For another, well, he said he pretty much bleeds orange and blue.

Cal Jaffe, left, and Muriel Branch, right, stand together for a picture in front of the Pine Grove School
Cal Mincer, right, says his father has prepared him well to someday take over the store. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

On his phone, Mincer frequently plays the “Coming Home” basketball celebration video that he filmed at John Paul Jones Arena the night UVA raised its championship banner.

“It still gives me chills,” he said. “It still brings a tear to my eye. So many of those moments in that video – I was there. I was there for Ralph’s last game. I was there for [Sean] Singletary’s shot against Duke. I remember watching Bobby Stokes jumping up in the air when we won the ACC in Landover.

“I remember Ralph’s last home game when he was at the line with two free throws to win the game. He missed them both and [Craig] Robinson kicked it out to him and he makes a jumper to win the game against Maryland.”

But Tara and Cal both said that attributing Mincer’s success as a businessman strictly to his passion for UVA sports would be selling him short.

“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be successful in retail and how much of our success has to do with his brilliant mind and his learning from his mistakes and learning from his family’s mistakes and doing things better,” she said.

“He definitely has a passion for UVA. He definitely has a passion for all sports. He has a passion for retail and business and doing things very precisely. He has a passion for numbers and keeping track of things.

“So all of those things really go together and create a sort of perfect storm. … The things that he loves kind of all work together.”

Hendricks said that for a home football weekend, Mincer can project almost exactly how much in sales the store will do.

“He factors in kickoff time, weather – and he is almost always right,” Hendricks said. “He’ll say, ‘Pretty good for a 60-year-old guy with a brain tumor, huh?’”

Every afternoon, Pitts stops by Mincer’s house to give him reports and sales information. “He knows every statistic about the store,” Pitts said. “He knows what’s going on at all times.”

Cal said he has learned much from his dad. “A lot of the systems he and my granddad have set up suit my strengths well, so I feel very at home in the business,” he said. “I feel like I’m used to it and can be good at the job. It’s a good feeling.”

Whenever he takes over full-time, Cal said he won’t be overthinking the way Mincer’s does business.

“I don’t anticipate too much reinvention – like nothing on the scale of pipes to shirts,” he said.

Black and white image of the Mincer family in Mincer's. Robert W. Mincer, right, Robert H. Mincer, center, Mark Mincer left
Robert W. Mincer, right, passed on the family business to his son, Robert H. Mincer, center, who passed it on to his son, Mark Mincer. (Contributed photo)

Ironically, Mark Mincer doesn’t remember a lot of the particulars surrounding the trip to the mall Tara made in 1990 to buy the Nike shirt after the Clemson win. At the time, he and Tara were both dating other people.

But looking back on all the circumstances that led to their getting together is fun.

“There were definitely a lot of forks in the road that fell perfectly,” he said.

Mincer said he doesn’t know how he would be handling his illness if it weren’t for Tara. After surgery, he could barely walk and feed himself, let alone get to the bathroom and shower.

“It’s been above and beyond what any reasonable person would expect or do,” Mincer said. “She’s totally devoted to my meals, my rest, my medicine, my doctor appointments and taking me to where I need to be, putting the right pills in front of me at the right time of day. She’s been truly amazing. She’s been with me every step of the way.”

When Mark first got the diagnosis, all of his kids, who were spread throughout the country, raced home. They then spent the next several months by his side.

“It seemed doomed,” Cal said, “but everything since then has been like, ‘For what is going on, he’s doing great.’

“We were always like, ‘Is he going to see the next holiday?’ And it keeps being like, ‘Yes, there is going to be another Fourth of July, there is going to be another Halloween, there is going to be another Christmas.’ It’s been tough, but we’ve been feeling grateful that he’s clearly on the above-average side of things. Honestly, it did not sound like he could be alive today from what we heard in October.”

Tara said establishing a page on CaringBridge, a social network that keeps family and friends connected during a health event, has been an enormous help.

“I don’t know if I would have expected it if you had asked me before all this happened, but [Mark] has been very open about everything that has happened,” she said. “He wants to share everything about his experience.

“From the very beginning, he never had any qualms about what I posted online or who I told what about his situation – and that was really freeing for all of us, his whole family that we could talk about it to whoever we needed to. None of it was a secret. That’s made a huge difference.”

Mark, who also posts regularly on the site, said he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from the community. He said it’s provided a great outlet for him, too.

“My wife,” said Mincer, pausing between cicada chirps, “says I’m more social now than I was before my illness.”

Not knowing how much longer he has left is a feeling that is hard to put into words, but choosing to look on the positive side, Mincer said things could have been worse.

“We have had this time where we could talk about the future,” he said, “and make sure the kids are on the right path.”

Media Contact

Whitelaw Reid

Manager of Strategic Communications University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group