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Schmattas To Shopify: 100 Years Of Family Retail

Video Highlights:
0:10 Introducing Jack Firestone
0:30 The History Of Retail
0:45 The Story Of Abraham Firestone (The Trader)
2:55 Traveling Buy Goods In A Covered Wagon
4:50 The Story Of Edward Firestone (The Schmatta Merchant)
6:20 1950’s Clothing Retailing in New York City
8:25 The Story Of Jack & Ezra Firestone The Flea Market Merchants
10:30 The Nationalization Of Commerce
11:00 The Story Of Ezra Firestone The Online Merchant
11:39 eCommerce Is Going Global

Click Here For Video Transcript

Jack: He can test like gravy.

Ezra: It’s crazy testing around here. Are we ready?

Carrie: We’re ready.

Ezra: Okay, you ready to roll?

Carrie: I’m rolling.

Ezra: Okay. Hey, Ezra here from, in California with, as you can probably tell, my father…

Jack: Hi, guys.

Ezra: Jack Firestone.

Jack: I don’t know how you could possibly tell.

Ezra: And we’re here to talk to you about retail. When we look at retail today, it’s important to remember where we came from, and my family has been in the retail, and sales, and merchant business for generations, and so we’re going to look back at what my great-grandfather did, what my grandfather did, what we did when I was younger, and now what I’m doing now. So when we look at Great-grandpa… Abraham?

Jack: Yeah.

Ezra: What was his shtick? What did he do?

Jack: Well, he was a cabinet builder, but what he did was, he was a trader.

Ezra: Not a traitor to his nation, but a trader.

Jack: A tra-DER with a D, trader, yeah, and because that’s how people did it then. They would have something, and they would barter it for something else, particularly people of our background. At that time in Poland-slash-Russia, when the borders changed, people of our ethnicity were not allowed to own businesses or property. So they existed and survived on the fringes. They would have to partner with someone of the proper nationality and religion to be in a business. But independently they could buy and trade goods.

Ezra: So he would take his horse-covered wagon with his three kids in the back, and he’d…

Jack: Exactly, exactly, and they’d journey, for example, to Vienna where they would buy wool and bolts of fabric for making clothing, suits, coats, that type of thing. They would take that back, and they would take the raw materials back.

Ezra: How many days are we talking here?

Jack: We’re talking weeks.

Ezra: Weeks?

Jack: It would be a couple of weeks’ journey at least, by wagon, to get from their town, just on the western side of what is now the Russian border over to Austria.

Ezra: Wow.

Jack: It was certainly a week’s journey, and then they’d buy their goods.

Ezra: So don’t complain if it takes a couple weeks for your stuff to come in from overseas by boat.

Jack: Yeah, yeah, it’s a lot quicker. Believe me. You’re in communication with people so much quicker than was once possible. So anyway, it was not easy. They’d go find raw materials, and they would hand-transport them back in their carts where they could then fabricate. They’d have tailors that they’d lined up to then turn the raw materials into goods.

Ezra: Which would then make them more valuable, so they’re taking this raw material. They’re bringing it back. They’re modifying it.

Jack: Turning it into a finished product and then retailing it.

Ezra: To who? To their community?

Ezra: Normally it would be whoever was dealing in wool and goods. And it might have been someone who had a general store, or it might have just been somebody who came in with a cartload of wool-slash-turned-into-garments.

Ezra: They’ve sourced their product from another country. They’ve come back. They’ve modified it, turned it into something better, the old, buy something for one [inaudible 00:03:45] and sell it for two [inaudible 00:03:47]. That’s the old model of business, and then they would sell it to whoever they could in that little community. So their channel, the visibility that they could get for their products was just their little town of…

Jack: And-or whomever they may have run into. I mean, it was literally that capricious where whomever they ran into on the road.

Ezra: Okay, so this is two generations back now, right?

Jack: Correct.

Ezra: So that’s Great-grandfather Abraham now, and he was a merchant, and they did well, and he was able to support his family.

Jack: They did well. They thrived until wartime changed their circumstances, and everything was thrown into chaos for them in particular. It was wartime.

Ezra: Right, okay, so now, one of his sons who survived that whole experience, not all of them did, right?

Jack: Six out of seven failed.

Ezra: That’s pretty heavy stuff. So one of them who survived, which is your father, thankfully…

Jack: Isaak.

Ezra: … Isaak…

Jack: Edward in English, Isaac in…

Ezra: … had a whole life in Europe, which got… destroyed with [inaudible 00:04:58].

Jack: Disheveled.

Ezra: He lost his family in the Holocaust, and we’re not making light of this. It’s heavy, but this is what happened. So he came to America when he was forty-something, right?

Jack: Having lost a wife and children, having lost his parents, all of his brothers and sisters….

Ezra: He had a whole business and everything there, came to America, started over with the woman who he met there, and they traveled together. He didn’t meet a woman in the United States.

Jack: He remarried in Poland before they were able to move to Germany, and they moved to Germany because it was easier to immigrate to the United States from Germany. So families, that were able to, got to Germany somehow with the idea of being able to immigrate, mostly either to Palestine or to the United States, although the United States was much preferred.

Ezra: They came here. You were born in New York City.

Jack: Correct.

Ezra: Lower East Side.

Jack: Nineteen-forty-seven.

Ezra: Nineteen-forty-seven, and this was at a time when all the Jews, there was a big collection of Jews in New York City, there still is, were selling schmattas, were selling rags, clothing, right? They were in the clothing business.

Jack: They were in the clothing business. They were down on the Lower East Side trading like it was the old country, except now, they were permitted to own businesses. They could have their own store. They could have their name on the store.

Ezra: So this was a level up.

Jack: The name could be… yeah.

Ezra: This was a level up from his father, right?

Jack: Totally.

Ezra: Yeah, okay, so he got to the point where he had a store, and what was his deal? Grandpa, your dad, his business off in New York.

Jack: Well, he started out working for somebody else and eventually was able to buy that guy’s business, and it was a ladies’ clothing store. He had no particular affinity for a ladies’ clothing store, but it was a thriving business that was being mismanaged, and he saw his opportunity, and took it over. And from that little store, and it was probably no more than, I would say, 800 square feet.

Ezra: And this is Orchard Street.

Jack: This was actually off of Spring. It was not on the Lower East Side. It was more toward the lower Broadway area, although where they purchased, where they bought everything…

Ezra: [inaudible 00:07:08] Midtown…

Jack: Was Orchard Street.

Ezra: Was Orchard Street.

Jack: Orchard Street for most of the goods, Midtown for the, believe it or not, lingerie, underwear, bras. That was Maidenform. They were also an immigrant family.

Ezra: So they were purchasing goods in New York City, having them tailored in New York City, and retailing them at a storefront in New York City.

Jack: Correct.

Ezra: It’s all happening in New York City.

Jack: Correct.

Ezra: And their source of visibility, the people they were selling to, was literally the street traffic of Orchard Street, the street traffic of Spring Street, people who would happen to walk by in their community of people.

Jack: They were in an extremely busy location surrounded by manufacturing and all the buildings that surrounded this particular location. So there are hundreds and hundreds, thousands of workers, who would convene on the streets during lunchtime before business and after business. So there was a transient population, but a huge population, of potential customers.

Ezra: Right, and they did very well. He tried to give you this business, which you did not want, thank God, right?

Jack: Thank you very much.

Ezra: Whatever, so they did really well by selling to the people who would come to their store, and that was his business.

Jack: Exactly.

Ezra: So he was a merchant. Now, the business that we did when I was a kid was we would get surplus goods. So where would we source these surplus goods, because I remember we’d have roofing material, and we’d have…

Jack: We would solicit various manufacturers for dead inventory, what they considered to be worthless stock, or virtually worthless stock, so we would get it for pennies on the dollar. But when we cleaned it up, shaped it up, made it reasonable-looking again, frequently, and we could bring it to the flea market, it would…

Ezra: So we can tell the flea market story. So here’s what we’d do is, we would get the stuff. We’d have it here. We’d wake up at 4 a.m. We’d pack our truck full of this…

Jack: Let’s say roofing.

Ezra: … roofing…

Jack: We would pick up roofing for a song from contractors who were done with a job. We’d have some leftover lots. Go ahead.

Ezra: But we’d have surplus…

Jack: No, go ahead.

Ezra: … surplus of all kinds, not just roofing, but all kinds. We’d pack it up. We’d drive it to the flea market at 4 a.m. We’d get our little corner spot. We always had the corner spot, because that was where the traffic was, and we would build our tent out of these metal rods, it wasn’t like these pop-up tents that, now, they just press a button, the tent pops up. It was like an hour building these tents, putting our boxes out…

Jack: It’d take 10 minutes.

Ezra: … writing sizing out. It was a lot harder than that.

Jack: There were a lot of poles, a lot of connecters.

Ezra: It was difficult, and we would build our store and draw the little signs, and I’d be out there on the street, seven to eight years old, just hollering people down, getting them to come see our stuff.

Jack: Oh, younger than that.

Ezra: Six? I don’t know how old I was.

Jack: Yeah, you’d started younger than that.

Ezra: But three years we did this. And this is where I did my first…

Jack: I think you might have been five.

Ezra: Five, I don’t know. We did our first split testing. We tested crayon versus marker. We built our stores by hand, and the source of visibility, the people we were selling to, were the people who would come to the swap meet looking for discounted goods. And that was what we could retail. That was the people were retailing to.

Jack: Well, that’s what we could get that had a margin that we could still make some money on.

Ezra: Right, and so now, okay, that’s twenty years ago now, right? Twenty-five years ago or something like that.

Jack: Twenty-five, yeah.

Ezra: Now, what’s happened since then is commerce has been nationalized in almost every first-world country, and what that means is that the internet has come along. It’s connected the world, and it allows anyone, from anywhere they are in a first-world nation, to be able to retail to anyone else in that first-world nation. So now I’m doing the same thing I was doing 25 years ago, except for I’m building my stores on the internet. I’m offering my goods and services to people all around the United States, and my informational goods, which are not physical goods, to people all around the world.

So my source of visibility and our source, we are the first generation, anyone who’s watching this video, the first group of people who’s had instant connection to the rest of the world. We can communicate with people, and spread messages, and share products and ideas in a way that our ancestors could not, so it’s a really special time to live. And what I predict will happen in the next three to five years is that commerce will globalize with Ali Baba, with Amazon, with some of these companies that are making it easy for me, here in America, to communicate with someone in China, to communicate with someone in South America. So what’s going to happen is, over the next three to five years, it’s going to be so that anyone from anywhere in the world can retail to anyone anywhere else in the world. So it’s a really exciting time to be a retailer.

Jack: It’s great, so much less far to schlep things.

Ezra: It’s a lot easier to retail merchandise these days. Anyways, I just thought that would be a fun story to tell, the generations of merchants, and also give some insight into how easy we have it today.

Jack: Oh, my goodness.

Ezra: Because a lot of people are saying, “Hey, how are we going to make it as small merchants today with the big companies, Walmart, pushing people out?” But what Walmart did was they pushed out physical Mom and Pop stores. They didn’t push out digital Mom and Pop stores. And there’s always a place for specialists. Amazon has everything in the world, but they don’t specialize in anything, so there’s always room for the people who are specialists, who do one thing really well.

Jack: Yeah, definitely.

Ezra: So thanks, Pop. This is my dad, Jack Firestone. Here we are in California, as we’re here from SmartMarketer. That was fun. Thank you for watching.

Jack: Thank you.

Ezra: See you on the next one.

Jack: Bye.

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