Tradition, service are trademarks

MINDING THE FAMILY STORE

August 29, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

"I open the store every morning at 9. I'm greeted cheerfully by employees and customers. I have a place to open my mail. At 10, I go for a shave. At noon, I walk home for lunch and a short nap. At 2, I return to the store and work until 6. I'm home every night with my family and on Sunday I'm off. I own the business. What else could I want?"

-- Joseph Silverstein

in the 1950s

Eli Silverstein suddenly became quiet as he prepared to reveal the secret that has allowed the family-owned department store to remain in business for 56 years.

Leaning forward across a table near the rear of the Havre de Grace clothing emporium, he slowly uttered the four magic words of success:

"We own the building."

The building, at 124 Washington St., originally housed the Mitchell Motors Packard dealership. It has been expanded since to its current size of 40 by 200 feet.

"If I had to pay rent for this space, I would have been out of business long ago," said Mr. Silverstein, the 52-year-old former prosecutor who began running the family business after his father, Joseph Silverstein, died in 1981 at age 72.

"Let's face facts," Mr. Silverstein said. "Businesses like this are a dying breed. Large, national chain stores have gobbled up stores like this across the country."

The store's interior has changed little over the past 50 years, he said. Sweaters, sweat shirts, shorts and a variety of pants are neatly stacked on mahogany tables his father bought from a store in New York that was going out of business. Shelves -- brimming with shirts, children's clothes and work clothes -- run the length of the store on both walls. Jackets, women's blouses and jeans hang on racks between the tables and shelves.

The rear portion of the store is the Levi's section, containing nearly 3,000 pieces of merchandise.

"We are the largest independent retailer of Levi's products in the nation," Mr. Silverstein said proudly. "Only the chain stores have larger accounts than us."

Mr. Silverstein said the bulk of the store's 6,000 customers ofrecord live between Edgewood and Elkton.

"We have an excellent reputation for service, dependability and affordable prices," he said. "I know our prices are competitive with those of Jamesway, Kmart and the soon-to-open Wal-Mart stores.

"And we have items here I know won't be found in chain stores."

Those offbeat items include: 100 percent cotton hose for elderly women; snuggies, a women's version of long-johns; and men's garter belts. "We don't sell a great many of those items, but we have them in stock," he said.

The newest addition to the merchandise is a line of jackets, sweat shirts, T-shirts and caps produced by Starter that represent many professional and college teams.

Mr. Silverstein said the store has been selling Levi's since his father moved to Havre de Grace from Jamaica, N.Y., on Long Island, in 1937.

At that time, construction had begun on the Susquehanna Bridge that carries U.S. 40 over to Cecil County. "The workmen [on the bridge] and local farmers kept my father in business in the early years," Mr. Silverstein said. "Work clothes have always been a major item here."

Both his parents emigrated to America from Poland in the early 1900s and settled in New York. In 1929, his father bought Harry's Army-Navy Store and operated it until he moved to Harford County.

His uncle Morris owned a men's shop in Oxford, Pa., and it was he who suggested Joseph Silverstein should consider leaving New York.

"He suggested Havre de Grace . . .," said Mr. Silverstein. "My father came for a visit, and within a week called my mother and told her he had decided on a building."

The original store was at 128 Washington St. It moved to its

present location in 1940.

As Joseph's Department Store grew, so did the Silverstein family. Eli, his older brother Monte and his younger brother Louis took turns working there, but none wanted to take over the business.

Monte is a dermatologist in Baltimore County. Louis has a family medical practice in Havre de Grace. Eli became a lawyer and worked for 10 years in the state's attorney's office in Prince JTC George's County.

But it was Eli who eventually succeeded his father. "I'm convinced if he could see me now he would be totally upset," he said. "He wanted us to become professionals."

At the urging of longtime customers and with the blessing of his mother, Gussie, Eli Silverstein kept the store open and shut down his law career. He said it has been 12 mostly good years. Business tripled over the first five years, but has slumped about 10 percent over the past three.

Tradition is a big part of the store's success, said Mr. Silverstein, and for that reason he is now agonizing over whether to open on Sundays.

"I realize that both parents work in most of today's families and that weekends are the only time they have to shop," he said, "but I'd rather not open. I really don't want to bring my six current employees in on Sunday, and I don't want to train a new staff just for one day a week.

"Having Sunday off was important to my father, and it is important to me."

It is obvious that he doesn't want to break family tradition.

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