Nearly 20 years ago, Dale Riley was sweeping the sidewalk outside his soon-to-open Glen Lake supermarket when a neighbor drove up, jumped out of his car and asked: "What the hell's going on here, and who the hell are you?"
That was Riley's introduction to Barry Bonoff, the Minnesota retail legend who became an enthusiastic supporter of Riley's market as well as a beloved friend.
"Barry was a big deal in town," Riley said, listing Bonoff's influence on Twin Cities businesses and cultural institutions. "But he never acted like he was a big deal. He made you feel like you were a big deal."
Bonoff, of Minnetonka, who died Dec. 25 surrounded by loved ones, was known for viewing life's glass as not just half-full, but overflowing.
"Everything was an excitement to him," Riley said. "He just exuded optimism. He loved life and loved people and loved his family and was proud of everything and everybody."
Bonoff grew up in Minneapolis and attended Washburn High School, with a brief stint at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault. (When his parents were out of town, he called for a cab ride home and never returned, displaying his lifelong penchant for boldness and mischief.) After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he served in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, conducting background investigations.
Bonoff then took over the family business, Jackson Graves, a high-end womens clothing shop. He expanded Jackson Graves to seven stores, installed a luxurious glass elevator in the Nicollet Mall location and cemented its name as a premier Midwest fashion destination. (Muriel Humphrey wore Jackson Graves as second lady while her husband served as vice president, as did Dorothy Benham as Miss America.)
In the 1960s, a local newspaper dubbed the effervescent Bonoff as "today's fashion authority." Reporters sought his opinion on fashion shows, shadowed him on a New York City buying trip and because of his love of angling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, published his recipe for fish fry (put "hunks of Crisco" into an 8-inch pan).
A profile of Bonoff, then in his 50s, described the retailer as "trim and cricket-quick," clad in a monogrammed dress shirt and Western-style belt. His staccato speech was punctuated with superlatives. His caricature dressed as Superman, with "JG" on the chest.
When Jackson Graves closed, Bonoff taught at the University of St. Thomas and brought several fresh retail concepts to the Galleria in Edina and Mall of America. He served on the Minneapolis Downtown Council, was a board member at the Minnesota Zoo and Temple Israel and volunteered at a local elementary school into his late 80s.
Roberta Bonoff met her future husband when she started working at Jackson Graves in her 20s. The couple created countless fond memories during their business collaborations and family time, especially at their cabin in northern Minnesota, where Bonoff earned his "Jewish lumberjack" moniker from his zest for removing dead trees.
The through line of Bonoff's nine decades was always being there for people, his wife said. Saving lives, metaphorically, through his unconditional support — "He was always going to be the person who was going to make somebody's life better" — but, also, literally. He once rescued a woman drowning in an ice-cold lake by pulling her into his boat and giving her his dry clothing.
"He had a big, big life," she said.
Besides his wife, Bonoff is survived by children Michael Bonoff, Terri Bonoff, Steven Bonoff, Nancy Bilyk, Alex Bonoff and Sarah Bonoff; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.