October 23, 2021

Mullen Office Outfitters nears end of 105-year run

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Customers browse the office supplies on Friday at Mullen Office Outfitters in Cortland.

CORTLAND — Fritz Mullen remembers how Cortland used to be. Main Street was busy — full of pedestrian traffic, with shops and department stores and movie theaters that brought people downtown.

“Sears and Penney’s were downtown, supermarkets were downtown,” Mullen said.

Mullen Office Outfitters has been a mainstay of Cortland’s Main Street for 105 years, and Francis “Fritz” Mullen has worked there for 70. But as Cortland goes through a new chapter in its development, in part because of a $10 million revitalization initiative, neither Mullen nor his store will be part of it. He plans to sell the building and retire after one more week of business.

Mullen, who has worked at the store since November 1947, has been running the business since his father died in 1976. His brother, Joe, helped him run it as well before retiring.

Several of the products that Mullen sells — like pens, paper and greeting cards — have been staples for decades. But office needs change, so does the outfitter, and he added printer cartridges, computer cables and blank CDs over the years.

“As technology changes, you need to buy different things to stay with it,” Mullen said.

Don Chu, left, picks up vintage typewriter parts from Fritz Mullen Saturday at Mullen Office Outfitters.

Still, business declined over the years. The department stores fled downtown for malls and plazas as the outskirts of the city as shopping malls entered the economic scene in the 1950s. Then they began leaving altogether, replaced by online retailers.

While Cortland had four department stores when Mullen was a young man, today none remain in the city, and only one in Cortlandville.

Mullen once had eight employees, but Friday was the last day for his last employee, Christine Totman. He’ll be the last employee.

“When you’re in your 90s, you need to get realistic,” Mullen said, adding he has no particular retirement plans. “You need to walk away while you can still walk.”

Jim Mullen, Fritz’s son, flew in from his Charlotte, North Carolina, home on Christmas morning to help his father. He flew home New Year’s Eve, but plans to be back when the store is sold.

“As soon as I get the shout, I’ll be back up here,” Jim said.

The 49-year-old son worked at the store until 1997, when he moved to Charlotte. Little has changed in the intervening 20 years.

“Since there’s no deliveries, we concentrate on what inventory is left,” Jim Mullen said. “Doing cleanup and making lots of trips to the recycling center.