NOGALES, Ariz. - New Yorker Charles Bracker settled here in the 1920s for one reason: The border was a great place to do business.

He bought the Army Store on Morley Avenue in 1924, changed the name to Bracker's in the 1930s and his family opened three more stores over the next 87 years. The Brackers established a thriving business catering to Mexican shoppers looking for high-end, name-brand clothes.

"It was always a hustle, bustle here," said Paul Bracker, 76, one of Charles and Pearl Bracker's five children.

The Brackers' business model worked for many stores in U.S. border cities. They sold shoes, clothes and trinkets that Mexicans couldn't get on their side of the line - or at least not for the same price.

With a valid visa from the U.S. State Department, Mexican shoppers could walk or drive into the United States in just a few minutes. Getting back to Mexico was effortless, with no checks by the U.S. government and only random checks by the Mexican government.

In Mexico, shops did similarly well with Americans who crossed over to buy cheap pharmaceuticals, shop for curios or enjoy low-priced cocktails and meals.

Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., were like one town, Paul Bracker said. "We knew it was the border, but we had no qualms about going across."

Bracker's Department Store became a destination for politicians, wealthy business people and military leaders. In the early years, when it was still an Army surplus store, Mexican generals would buy their supplies there.

"My father knew all the Mexican army generals and some of the rebels," Paul Bracker said. Customers included Álvaro Obregón, Mexican president from 1920 to 1924, who was from Sonora.

Today the family owns three stores in downtown Nogales and a fourth at a shopping center a few miles north of the border.

Over the years, business would fall with each collapse of the Mexican peso but come back within months as customers felt comfortable spending again.

"Physically we're in the United States, but economically we're in Mexico," Bruce Bracker said.

These days, Mexicans crossing through ports of entry encounter longer lines and more scrutiny. So fewer of them are coming - crossings through Arizona ports have plummeted 30 percent over the past nine years, federal government figures show.

That's the same percentage that sales have dropped in the Brackers' discount store.

"You can't sell as much to 50 people as you can to 100 people," Bruce Bracker said.

The family's stores have survived, but Paul and Bruce Bracker say that for the sake of all border businesses, more customs officers are needed so entry ports can open more of their lanes more of the time.

"They are restricting the flow of people coming back and forth," Bruce Bracker said. "And by restricting people, they are restricting trade."

"Physically we're in the United States, but economically we're in Mexico."

Paul Bracker, business owner in downtown Nogales

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or