By Elizabeth Sporkin Bill Shaw
September 10, 1990 12:00 PM

In November 1986 cheese salesman John Peterman was on a business trip through Wyoming when he made the chance purchase that would ultimately lead him to a fortune. In a western-wear store, he bought himself a long canvas duster, a shoe-length coat used by cowboys to protect their legs. The duster, he thought, would be perfect for horseback riding back home in Lexington, Ky. Friends who saw the coat oohed and aahed. He wore it to New York City, and his buddy, adman Don Staley, also looked at it admiringly, Peterman and Staley figured if the coat was such an eye-catcher, maybe they could sell some. They bought 500, but the dusters gathered dust until the pair took out a $3,000, 1/6-page ad in The New Yorker magazine with the following bit of copy: “Although I live in horse country. I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don’t make Duesenbergs anymore.” Duesenberg cars and dusters? Explains Peterman: “They both had charisma, both [are] out of another era, both had quality, I guess.”

Peterman guessed right. Within four weeks (and after two more ads), the coats were sold out—and the quirky J. Peterman Company catalog was born. Today several million copies of the catalog (available by calling 1-800-231-7341) are mailed out five times a year. And the affable 48-year-old Kentucky gentleman, now a millionaire, has sold thousands of those $184 coats and enough other nostalgic items that he claims his business will quadruple this year—to $20 million. Because Peterman has always had a yen for cowboys and soldiers and nostalgia, his catalog is full of items such as the Counterfeit Mailbag ($275), a Russian Navy shirt ($21) and a replica of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Yalta cape ($565). Celebrity buyers of the Peterman line, which has been compared with an updated Banana Republic, include Mia Farrow, who was smitten by a pair of $48 wire-rimmed Fort Knox sunglasses; Anjelica Huston, who bought a $410 trenchcoat; and Larry Hagman, who wears a $365 fireman’s coat. For folks with less glamorous callings, Peterman’s products—often named after personalities in history or literature, such as the Gauguin hat or the Gatsby shirt—”offer a fantasy,” says marketing expert Katie Muldoon, president of New York’s HDM Muldoon agency. Adds she:” Peterman is a rugged individualist who allows people to be characters in their own stories.”

“I’m like a kid” is the way the son of a West Nyack, N.Y., banker and a secretary prefers to describe himself. Usually clad in cowboy boots and jeans with a tin of snuff stuffed in his shirt pocket, he drives to work in his $6000 maroon reproduction of a 1935 Auburn and makes deals from an office cluttered with macho toys like an 1889 Winchester rifle, a spittoon and an antique microscope. “I get to travel and buy anything I want, and I get to play with everything,” he says. “I figure if I like something, there’re probably 20000 or 30000 other people who might like it too.” In that belief he has seasoned his catalog with a $340 J. Peterman shirt, with big blousy sleeves and wooden buttons designed to his specifications, and a $100 precise replica of Babe Ruth’s baseball bat (now sold out) he commissioned just because “I like bats.”

Indeed. After graduating from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., in 1963, the 6′, 170-lb. Peterman was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a second baseman. But after three years in the minor leagues, where “I couldn’t hit the curve,” he gave up and moved on to sales. In the next 20 years he hawked dog food, cereal, pineapple, tuna fish—even inspirational tapes. “I had the ability to take $600 out of a guy’s pocket when that was the last thing the guy needed to buy,” he says of the latter stint. “It made me feel bad so I quit.”

Along the way, he moved his family—which includes his wife of 26 years, Audrey, 47, and four children, ages 15 to 25—from Chicago to Atlanta to Lexington, where they relocated in 1978. But though they set up housekeeping in a 400-square-foot colonial with five bedrooms and three fireplaces, Peterman hardly settled down. “John’s been a renegade all his life.” says Audrey, a former high school principal’s assistant who is now her husband’s head of customer service. “He’s been a great role model for the children. They learned from John to never be afraid to try new things.”

That includes letting your imagination roam. The catalog copy conjures up images of precious finds from faraway places. Everything is given the same epic treatment. “Traveling once from Tangier to Tetuan, I noticed the Berber women had tiny pieces of fragrant orange peel held to their nostrils by the upper edge of their veils” is the pitch for a pair of $39 white cotton bush pants.

The entrepreneur has never really been to Tangier, but that, he says, is beside the point. “Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were,” says Peterman, who admits that “I’ve got everything I want.” Except for maybe a replica of General Patton’s trenchcoat. But he’s working on it.

—Elizabeth Sporkin, Bill Shaw in Lexington