Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South

How Jewish entrepreneuers changed the nature of the South.

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Reprinted with permission from AJS Perspectives: The Newsletter of the Association for Jewish Studies. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

Picture this: the tin or tar-paper shacks within walking distance of the town center, where a monument to a Confederate general or simply to a Johnny Reb is conspicuously placed, the simple, mostly Protestant churches made of brick or wood, the dusty roads and the humid air, the signs advertising a regional soft drink like Coca-Cola or perhaps Dr. Pepper, the atmosphere of languor and ease.

This was the paradigmatic village of the American South, from roughly the era of Reconstruction throughout much or most of the twentieth century. The economy was overwhelmingly agrarian; and the landscape was overwhelmingly rural, with metropolises few and far between.

Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus was founded by
Jewish store owners in Dallas, Texas.

The "Jewish" Store

One institution is missing from the picture of this archetypal village: the dry-goods store, the clothing store, the hardware store, the furniture store, the department store that was, with charming frequency, owned and run by Jewish families. Occasionally the towns were even named for the merchants who moved there--like Kaplan, Louisiana; Marks, Mississippi; and Felsenthal, Arkansas. Operating on Main Street, these mercantile families were crucial to the economy of the South, selling to black and white customers alike.

From which other retailers would even many Klansmen have bought their denims, their shoes, even their sheets? The dominance of these stores and the families that built and sustained them in the Southern imagination may be due to the occupational structure of the Jewish population of the region. Because industry, with all sorts of notable exceptions, could gain so little traction, because cities had to struggle for life against the economic and ideological influence of agrarianism, no significant proletariat developed among Southern Jews.

With few first-class colleges and universities, a professional class needed more time to emerge than elsewhere in the United States; and because boondocks bohemias are so freakishly rare, artistically inclined Southern Jews usually had to pursue their dreams somewhere else.

The groove was established in the mid-19th century by German Jews, who often started their business careers as peddlers. Even when eastern European Jews began arriving about half a century later, as Lee Shai Weissbach has shown in Jewish Life in Small-Town America (2005), the pattern was generally reproduced. As a result, the impact of the mercantile class upon not only the small-town but also upon the communal character of Southern Jewry was largely uncontested. In exploring the Southern Jewish past, we really mean business….

Entrepreneurial Jews

There is no denying how frequently Southern Jewry displayed a flair for enterprise. The beginnings were invariably impoverished. But usually within a couple of generations, thanks to fortitude and perseverance, astuteness and luck, material comfort had been achieved; and some enjoyed genuine wealth. In virtually every city, a dry goods store became a major department store: Godchaux in New Orleans, Thalhimers in Richmond, Goldsmith's in Memphis, the Gus Blass Company in Little Rock, Rich's in Atlanta, Levy's in Savannah, Cohen Brothers in Jacksonville, Pizitz's in Birmingham, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Sakowitz's in Houston, the May Company in St. Louis, Hecht's in Baltimore, and Garfinckel's in Washington, DC.

Nor is the evidence of entrepreneurial triumph something that was especially pronounced a century or so ago. Atlanta's Home Depot, founded primarily by Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus in 1978, became the nation's second largest general retailer (after Wal-Mart). Charlotte can boast the Family Dollar variety store chain, which Leon Levine, the son of a Rockingham, North Carolina, department store owner, founded in 1959 at the age of 22. Family Dollar has spread into nearly every state, with more than 35,000 full-time and part-time employees; his son Howard Levine is currently the chief executive officer of this Fortune 500 corporation.

The 2,200 retail outlets of Zales jewelry had their origins in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1924; the company moved to Dallas two decades later. Founder Morris Bernard Zale (né Zalefsky) revolutionized access to what had once been a largely upscale business. Austin has Dell Computer, which founder Michael Dell made into the world's larger manufacturer of personal computers. Nor did everyone prefer retailing. Atlanta's master builder was the Lithuanian-born Ben Massell, who built about a thousand downtown buildings in all. There were so many, in fact, that in 1961 the booster Ivan Allen Sr., a former president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, proclaimed that "Sherman burned Atlanta, and Ben Massell built it back."

Stein Mart

The region was not inhospitable to Jews and their commercial aspirations. Though hardly enjoying the high status of, say, plantation owners or military officers, tradesmen were not disreputable; permit one example of tenacity and pluck to be representative. Sam Stein arrived at Ellis Island in 1905 with $43, and got to Greenville, Mississippi, as a peddler. He wandered from there through the Delta, selling jewelry. But he made his base in Greenville, reputed to be the most tolerant of the villages of the Delta, which was "the most Southern place on earth." He married another Jewish immigrant. But he died suddenly in 1933, as the Great Depression was wreaking havoc with the prospect of financial security that had propelled Sam Stein from Lithuania a third of a century earlier.

Stein Mart

His son Jake nevertheless converted the store, named Sam Stein's and then Stein's Self Service Store, and finally Stein Mart, into the biggest emporium in the entire Delta. Covering an entire city block, the store promised mouth-watering discounts on discards from chic Manhattan operations like Saks Fifth Avenue.

Formerly a star tackle on the high school football team, Jake Stein became the very archetype of the booster, heading the Chamber of Commerce, and serving as a city councilman and as president of the Hebrew Union Temple. Seven days a week he could usually be found in the store. His son Jay, born in 1945, harbored an ambition far vaster than the boundaries of the Greenville where he was born and raised. Jay Stein devoted himself to expanding the mercantile enterprise that his grandfather began.  Stein Mart became a powerhouse of upscale clothing and other items that were generally found in department stores but were offered at prices common to discount houses. 

The growth of Stein Mart was spectacular, especially after Stein moved corporate headquarters to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1984. Sometimes a new store opened in some community (usually but not always in the South) every three weeks. By the dawn of the 21st century, Stein Mart was racking up $1.2 billion in net sales, earned in 260 stores. Its company historian, David J. Ginzl, concluded that "the company had positioned itself as a distinctive off-price retailer," offering high-quality merchandise. One of the company advertising slogans was therefore especially enticing: "You could pay more. But you'll have to go somewhere else."

Advancing the South

What did such retailers do to modernize the South? In Jacksonville, Jacob Cohen may have been the first merchant in the South to put price tags on merchandise. Even if the claim was inflated or apocryphal, Cohen Brothers helped to scuttle the barter system that had been customary before the twentieth century. The company and its imitators thus activated transactions of trust between the customers and the sales force, and helped to reduce the power of the unscrupulous, there's-one-born-every-minute hucksters.

Eventually, instead of haggling and bargaining, came the assurance and the probity of "satisfaction guaranteed," based on fixed prices and the right of customers to return what they had purchased and to get their money back. Competitors were compelled to raise the level of their own game, to become more sophisticated in their marketing and more stylish in their wares. Merchants even in hamlets had to become more attuned to fashion, and thus served as conduits of cosmopolitanism.

Sensitivity to the fluctuations of taste that reverberated from outside was what partly constituted the novelty of the New South--the phrase that Henry W. Grady, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, made famous in 1886 in evangelizing for a region that would achieve postbellum prosperity through capitalist enterprise. The stores that Jews established helped weaken the parochialism of the South (even if its xenophobia hardly vanished).

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Stephen Whitfield

Stephen Whitfield is the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University. He is the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (Blackwell).