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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Old Jewish Retailers
Posted by Jill | 11:07 AM
I can remember when you could go to a store that sold "foundation garments" and actually get fitted for a bra. You'd hate it, but there would be a middle-aged Jewish woman there who knew every single bra there was in the store. Half the time she'd be able to look at your boobs in your T-shirt and know exactly what you needed. And she wouldn't let you leave the store until you had exactly the right bra, that wouldn't ride up in the back, where the straps wouldn't fall off your shoulders, that wouldn't gap in the front or in the cups. She might tell you that you needed "a little girdle" too if you had a bit of a tummy. Sometimes she'd be like a drill sergeant, other times she'd be like someone trying to fix you up with her nephew who is such a nice buy and a pre-med student. There are still a few of those stores, like Olga's in Brooklyn and WOB (Wizard of Bras) in Oradell, NJ. But most of us walk around in bras that are too small, too large, too tight, worn out, and just plain don't fit properly. We may have hated these trips to the corset shop, but those women did right by us.

For mens' wear, there was a similar dynamic. Here in New Jersey, the big name was Schlesinger's, which closed in 1985, 66 years after its founder, Sidney Schlesinger, opened it. The location is now a Modell's, since Schlesinger had insisted that anyone buying the store had to run it in the way he did. Every guy who bought a suit at Schlesinger's looked like a million bucks. It didn't matter if you were short or fat, if you had broad shoulders or narrow one, by the time you got your suit away from Schlesinger's tailors, it fit like a custom suit.

Downtowns used to be full of this kind of store. My grandmother had one for a while. These were businesses started by first-generation Jewish immigrants who knew "a nice piece of goods" when they saw it. I don't know what it is about Jews and the garment industry, but there sure were a lot of us in it, both at the wholesale and retail level. Allan Sherman even did a song about Jewish dry goods guys -- "The Ballad of Harry Lewis", which about 1:20 into the interpretation below, contains one of the greatest puns in parody song history:

There aren't many stores anymore that offer the kind of personal service the old ones did. Today you go to Old Navy and buy some schmatte made by exploited people in the developing world making fifty cents a day. It holds up for a season, and then you throw it out and buy something new next year. But there are still relics of the old "quality and service at a fair price" doctrine.

One of them was Mens Wearhouse, a chain famous for its TV spots featuring the company's gravelly-voiced founder, George Zimmer, with the tagline, "You're going to like the way you look...I guarantee it." For some reason, Zimmer was forced out of his position as executive chairman of the company last week. No reason was given, and the move left many heads scratching, because the company had just enjoyed a first quarter profit increase of 23 percent. What we do know is that the founder shares his name with the first three syllables of the man going on trial this week in Florida for the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Perhaps this was the garment industry equivalent of firing Phil Donahue at a time when critiquing the Iraq War just wasn't the done thing. Instead of doing research, just assume that the guy is a problem for a stupid reason and get rid of him.

The board of directors of Mens Wearhouse may find themselves wearing the Infamous Mantle of John Sculley, who nearly ran Apple Computer into the ground after firing Steve Jobs in the 1980s. Already the company's stock has tanked, and customers are up in arms. One Wall Strett analyst opined that the company felt Zimmer's image as a Person of Years didn't jibe with attempts to win over millennials, though this analyst has clearly not looked at millennial modes of dress lately. But the saddest thing about Zimmer's dismissal, whether out of a misguided chasing of the meager millennial dollar, or his possession of a similar name to someone in a high-profile trial, is that it's yet another nail in the coffin of the Old Jewish Retailer model, one which prioritized good customer service delivered by well-compensated employees in a family environment. I think this board will live to rue the day it decided to let Mr. Zimmer go.

Here in New Jersey, there is still one relic of this kind of business model left. It's P.C. Richard, the appliance and electronics store with a number of NJ locations, including the famous Flagship on Route 22 in Union. Richards offers decent value and knowledgeable sales staff who'll work with you and even haggle a bit, especially if you come back to the same guy every time you shop there. I've bought a Weber grill, an air conditioner, and a small freezer from MY P.C. Richard salesman, Nick, and I know that when I go back to buy something else, Nick will give me a good deal. As long as P.C. Richard is owned by the founder's family and is a privately-held company, you'll be able to get this kind of service. It's only when these businesses go public and have to answer to the Mitt Romneys of the world, that things like service and value -- and folksy founders -- must fall by the wayside in pursuit of more dollars stuffed into the pockets of the rich.

Here's a sample of the kind of guy these Wall Street assholes just jettisoned (note the millennials who DO seem to be interested in what he has to say):

UPDATE 6/25/13: Looks like the Board, which appears to have engineered Zimmer's ousting because of their own desire to stuff the pockets of the company's executives instead of its employees, has a problem on its hands.

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As a kid, my grandmother and mother took us to Epstein's Dry Goods on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. The store moved to Tuckahoe, NY and is still going strong. You just can't beat the experience of going to a mom-n-pop store.