One of the great rags-to-riches stories in the history of Mississippi business is being told for the first time in the new book “Stein Mart: An American Story of Roots, Family, and Building a Greater Dream.” Published by the University of Tampa Press ($25 hardback) and written by David J. Ginzl, the 172-page book chronicles Stein Mart’s rise from one man and his bag of wares to a publicly owned national retailer with more than 260 stores scattered across the U.S.
However, as the title implies, the history of Stein Mart is really the story of a remarkable Jewish family. Sam Stein was born in 1882 in Russia, the son of a bakery owner. Sam’s father was a magistrate in Grodno in West Russia, and thus escaped much of the persecution Russian Jews were experiencing at the time. Still, when Sam was drafted into the Russian army in 1904, as a Jew he faced a mandatory 25-year enlistment and almost certain death as Jews were put on the front lines as “canon fodder.”
Sam asked his father to help him flee to America. When he refused, Sam and his mother broke into the father’s desk, stealing travel documents and some money, and Sam fled west. Loyal to the czar, Sam’s father reported the theft, but Sam had made good his escape.
Sam arrived at Ellis Island in 1905 with little money — $43 — but a lot of hope. He continued to drift west, stopping for a while in Memphis, but eventually settling in the Mississippi River town of Greenville in 1904 or 1905.
While in Memphis, Sam had peddled costume jewelry door-to-door from a bag slung over his back. In Greenville, Sam found a bustling commercial center of the Mississippi Delta and a tolerant town made up of a diverse population of Italians, Chinese, Jews and others. So, Sam set up “shop” in Greenville, once again selling wares from a 100-pound sack, containing jewelry and later other merchandise, to poor, rural homes in the Delta.
Finding the travel arduous and sometimes dangerous, Sam began selling his wares from a suitcase on the sidewalk at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Walnut Street. There, Sam decided to open his first permanent store circa 1908.
Early records of the company are scanty, but the store was successful, and Sam oversaw several expansions. While other Jewish merchandisers in Greenville catered to a high-end clientele, the store, then known simply as “Sam Stein,” remained focused on the type of customers Sam had peddled to, offering lower-priced, affordable merchandise to primarily blacks and less affluent whites.
Upon Sam’s death in 1933, the mantle passed to his son, Jake, who took his father’s concept of low-priced merchandise to a new level. A defining moment is when the company formed a relationship with high-end clothing retailer Saks Fifth Avenue, which had a liberal return policy. Left with a significant amount of unsold merchandise, Saks agreed to sell it to Stein Mart, which in turned offered it to the public at deep discounts sometimes running more than 75%. The semi-annual events created a feeding frenzy among shoppers, filling the store to capacity, once to the point that the crowd pushed out the front glass.
Stein Mart soon gained similar relationships with other retailers such as Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom. And it became an institution, almost a way of life, for people in Greenville and surrounding areas. No longer a store only for the less affluent, shoppers at Stein Mart now included those with money and discerning tastes. Doctors and lawyers rubbed shoulders with blue-collar workers and farmers. Many native Greenvillians that had moved away would return to Greenville simply to shop at Stein Mart.
Today’s Stein Mart bears little resemblance to the old, primarily due to the vision and drive of Jake’s son, Jay Stein. Described by Ginzl as a “Boy Wonder,” Jay had worked at the store as a child, and came on full-time as an adult, becoming president and CEO in 1978. He stressed areas of the business such as customer service, inventory control and sound management, which his father had been less interested. Dapper and affable, Jay was a constant presence on the sales floor, talking and listening to the customers.
Jay had a slightly different vision for Stein Mart than his grandfather or father. Jay began changing Stein Mart’s merchandise to a higher quality product, at a higher yet still discounted price, than previous merchandise. Jake was not impressed with the idea, but Jay insisted. It has proved an unqualified success.
It was also Jay who led the charge, against his father’s judgment, to open a second store in Memphis. It was a smash hit, so much so that it was difficult to keep merchandise on the shelves. A third store opened in Nashville, and more came thereafter.
Due to the growth, in 1984 Stein Mart moved its corporate headquarters to Jacksonville, Fla., where the growth continued and more loyal customers were gained. In 1992, the company went public.
The company is now a national retailer. The original store has left its place in downtown Greenville, and is now located on U.S. 82 South, the current “hot spot” for commercial development in the Port City. But the staff of the Greenville store remains a tight-knit group, and Jay remains adamant that he would not change his Greenville roots and experience.
“I got a sense of family from that community, a sense of belonging, a sense of spirituality,” Jay said. “It had nothing but positive influences on me.”
“Stein Mart: An American Story of Roots, Family, and Building a Greater Dream” is concise and honest — periods of poor sales and earnings and Stein family infighting and disagreements are dutifully presented along with the successes and joys. Ginzl does an excellent job of painting a true picture of both the Steins and Stein Mart. If one wants to know the “real” Stein Mart story, get a copy and enjoy.
Wally Northway, a Greenville native, is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.