From a curved corner property on Passyunk Avenue, his windows packed with merchandise and signs promising to make men look better "if you let us," Abe Mandel has sized up a great many people over the years.

Usually, it's to get them into the best-fitting slacks or most flattering shirts.

Lately, his focus has been on three men in particular, to determine whether they are the right fit to succeed him at the helm of A Man's Image. He has decided they are.

Mandel, 74, proprietor of menswear establishments in the same block of Passyunk (near 12th and Morris Streets) since 1980 and from other points in South Philadelphia since 1968, has decided it's time for life in leisure wear.

But he's not willing to close.

In what his employees are hailing as an incredibly generous gesture, Mandel is looking for a new tenant for the 4,400-square-foot property, and, once he finds one, will relocate A Man's Image to a yet-to-be-selected smaller site on Passyunk. He will lease that for three years and turn the business over to his three salesmen to own and operate.

Mandel will finance their start, he said, and do their buying as long as they pay his travel expenses for multiple yearly forays to Atlanta, Manhattan, and Las Vegas, and eventually reimburse him for the start-up merchandise.

"After one year, they take over," he said. "The lease will still be in my name, mainly so they can get used to each other."

Not that the soon-to-be owners - Louis Zulli, 58, and Bob Taylor, 43, both of South Philadelphia, and Mario Maldonado, 57, of Audubon - are strangers. Zulli and Taylor have worked for Mandel 31 years and 28 years, Maldonado for 19.

"We've all been together so long, it's almost like a family," Taylor said.

And the father figure is doing what he can to ensure retirement for him won't mean unemployment for them.

"He could just pack his bags and leave," Zulli said. "It's very good of him to give us the opportunity to keep the store going and let us make a living."

For Maldonado, it's the realization of a dream and finally an answer to many customers' questions. "People have always asked me, 'When are you going to have your own store?' Why not take the opportunity? It's odd that you can find a boss that would leave his business to his employees."

For Taylor, it's a gratifying return on his sweat equity of the last nearly 30 years. "It just goes to show hard work, dedication, and perseverance will pay off in the end."

Mandel credited a philosophy instilled by his parents: "If it doesn't hurt you, help."

His decision to slowly exit a business that at its peak in the late '80s and early '90s generated close to $2 million in annual revenue - sales are about half that now - came nearly two years ago.

"I was tired. . . . And I had a couple of scares," Mandel said, a grim expression replacing his easy smile.

The first was when he was on a buying trip to Las Vegas and fell ill from heart problems. When he returned home, Mandel, who had a heart attack in 1980 at age 39, was implanted with a pacemaker.

Last year brought a diagnosis of prostate cancer, eight weeks of radiation, and the conclusion that "life's too short for me to work that many hours."

A grandfather of three who lives in Blue Bell with wife and bookkeeper Susan, Mandel typically works 60-hour weeks over five or six days.

Though he lives in the refined suburbs of Montgomery County, this native of Seventh and Mercy Streets never lost his South Philadelphia edge when it came to the store.

"Some of the people, they become demanding, sometimes arrogant," he said. "I tell them the only place you have that right to do what you want is in your house. This is my house."

For the most part, Mandel has been a model of customer service, his employees said, with a phenomenal ability to know a man's pants, shirt, and jacket sizes just by looking at him.

"My ego is such I can't stand to see one of my customers looking stupid," he said after sending Bill Barton, a cook at Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown, off with a new pair of black pants - and some advice: "Don't put an iron on black. A pillowcase is the best buffer for ironing."

Barton, who also bought his wedding suit at A Man's Image in the fall, was relieved to hear the store will live on.

"People talk about a real South Philadelphia community culture," Barton said. "This is part of it."

Brandon Fox, an associate at commercial real estate broker MSC Retail, said the listing for the 1950s former bank building had "gotten a ton of activity" since November.

"We're being pretty picky about who we go after," Fox said. "It's important that it fits into the fabric of the neighborhood. Abe and Sue are conscious of that."

215-854-2466 @dmastrull