Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South

How Jewish entrepreneuers changed the nature of the South.

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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."

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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).