Photos: Theresa Stigale
Editor’s Note: Suspenders, hosiery, cigars, men’s dress pants, shoes, linens, dresses, industrial supplies, and restaurant goods–these were the types of businesses that populated Old City before it gentrified. A few still survive among the art galleries and restaurants north of Market Street, places like AA Abrasives, Economy Restaurant Supply, and Benjamin Stein & Son, a wholesale dealer in linens. Theresa Stigale sat down with Gene Stein, son of Benjamin, to talk about the the business of being a ragman in Philadelphia.
Theresa Stigale: Tell me about yourself.
Gene Stein: I’m me!
TS: Your parents started in the textile business with a clothing shop in South Philly in 1945.
GS: They rented the entire building; so the shop was on the ground floor and there were two apartments above. We lived in one of the apartments and rented the other out. I had my own room but learned to live with the layaway merchandise crowding me in. It seemed normal to me to sleep with the lay-aways; I just thought that was they way things were. Eventually my father opened up the wholesale linens business in Society Hill around 1955 when the the city government was trying to get more businesses to move there. Back then Society Hill was not as restored or developed as it is now. In 1963, the linen business moved from 5th & Delancey up to Old City at 13 N. 3rd St for a while. We sold that building then moved a few doors away to this building at 19 N. 3rd, which we still own. While we were up here in Old City, we still had the South Philly children’s clothing store that my mother ran until it closed in 1973.
TS: You haven’t worked in the family business your whole life.
GS: I was born and raised in South Philly. When I got married in 1961, my wife and I moved up to the Northeast. I graduated from Penn State and studied history, but my career before the shop was mostly spent in the advertising business. At one point I was the basement advertising manager for Lit Brothers and Snellenberg’s Department Stores. We were working on ads for the bargain goods in the basement. The two stores were owned by the same company (City Stores) so the advertising department bought newspaper space for both companies. I also studied for a year at the Charles Morris Price School on Locust Street downtown, which was run by the Poor Richard’s Club. It was as a school for advertising and journalism.
TS: How did you get into the linen business?
GS: I grew up watching my parents run the children’s shop and then my father eventually got into wholesale linens in 1955. At one point, around 1956, my father was hospitalized and asked me to help out in the linen shop for two weeks. When my father recovered, I went to work in advertising and later came back and rejoined him full-time around 1962. We worked in the linen shop together for 33 years until 1995, when he retired at age 93. So I’ve been in the business for 50 years.
TS: And no doubt you made some changes when you came on board.
GS: Well since my background was in advertising I said to my father that you can’t just stay here in the shop and expect all of the sales to come to you. So I told him that I would go out and develop the business. I built a bigger trade by doing all of the outside sales. Here’s a good story–one day I stopped into Philco, the appliance retailer up in Frankford. I got to talking to the guy and told him about the kinds of stock we carried to see if we could interest them in give-aways. I suggested to him that they offer boxed sets of good quality towels as a gift with purchase. So I would order the boxed sets from Dundee Mills in Griffin, Georgia, and drop-ship them directly to Philcos all over the country. That was one of our biggest and most successful promotions.
TS: Nowadays, what’s the best seller?
GS: We sell household and institutional textiles–wholesale only–not directly to the public. Everything is our best seller! My retail customers need to keep everything in stock in their own inventory and my institutional customers (hospitals, hotels, schools, prisons, car washes, etc.) have turnover and are always in need of textiles. There’s a constant demand for repeat sales of all types of linens, so there is no one bestseller.
TS: Exactly what types of linens do you sell?
GS: We sell all textiles for the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom: kitchen and bath towels, dishcloths, washcloths, bedsheets, tablecloths, aprons, blankets, comforters, etc. We can do special orders but mostly do bulk sales to buyers who then resell directly to the consumer in their own stores or outside stalls/tables or institutional buyers who need to stock hotels, hospital rooms, restaurants, etc. I can pick up any sheet or towel and tell you what it’s made of without looking at the label–that could be all cotton, cotton/poly blend, percale, microfiber etc.
TS: You are a wholesaler but sometimes I hear of wholesalers that are referred to as “jobbers.” What’s the difference? And are you the last one?
GS: There is no real difference, a wholesaler is a more refined term for a “jobber.” Basically a jobber is someone who buys bulk goods then re-sells only to a retail or institutional customer, not the general public. There used to be 21 jobbers like me in Philadelphia selling linens, now I’m the only one left. Just don’t call me a schmata (a rag man in Yiddish).
TS: Where do you get your goods?
GS: Back when we first started in the business, we used to buy directly from the cotton mills in the south, but almost all of the mills import their goods from oversees now so they are not really in the manufacturing business anymore.
I would say that 95-99% of all of our goods are imported, mostly from Pakistan, China, India, and Brazil. They come in on a ship in a container and by the time that ship is on the sea, the merchandise is already paid for by a broker. The broker has the goods delivered to and stored in public warehouses. Those public warehouses are the places that take in the all kinds of merchandise from the ships, not just linens. It could be clothing, toys, furniture or whatever. I usually know what’s supposed to come in because the broker will send out the ship’s manifest to all of their customers to see who wants what. I can get a manifest a few days or a week before a ship arrives and place my order.
TS: Give us a taste of how it works.
GS: A customer will call and ask if I can get them a certain product in a specific size, color or weight. If I don’t have it in stock, I’ll make an order with the broker, for example, two bales of washcloths. Then I have to calculate the freight charges and the cost of the goods. Sometimes customers place an order in advance and I tell them, look, I need to check my suppliers and see when I can get this in at a good price. If it’s taking too long, give me a call and say “Stein, I need the goods right away,” and I’ll bring them in sooner. But if I do, it’ll cost cost a little bit more than when I can place a bigger order, collectively for a bunch of customers, and save on freight. Then I can pass that savings onto my customers.
TS: Tell me more about the old cotton mills down south.
GS: Well for example, I would buy goods from one of the biggest mills, Fieldcrest Cannon, and they would hold the goods for me free of charge down there for up to six months so I had time to find a buyer. Then I could drop ship from their mill directly to my customers. In those big mills, you really had to know who to call to get a good deal. I always had people I relied on–an “inside guy”–really good guys who looked out for me so I could get the best quality goods for at the lowest price. I can still remember their names.
Fieldcrest Cannon was one of the biggest companies down south and they were located in Kanopolis, North Carolina. They had this big compound where they gave their mill workers free room and board. They took good care of them and even built a company country club that the workers could use for free. I remember one time they even offered to fly me down in a helicopter and visit the country club because they used that for their good customers too.
TS: Business has changed a lot since the 1970s.
GS: In the old days, sheets used to be sold separately so that if a customer needed to buy just flat sheets for example, they could just reorder those. Then sheets became available in packaged sets, especially when patterned or dyed goods became more popular. Back in 1976, I had had a lot of sales of red, white and blue sheet sets–there was a lot of demand for that by consumers for the Bicentennial. They were made by Dan River Mills down south. Back then those mills also did private labeling for bigger department stores if they place bigger orders; stores like Wanamakers, Lit Brothers, Lord & Taylor and Gimbels all had their own brands of goods. If you saw a label with a department store name on it, the customer knew right away what kind of quality to expect. Now it’s hard to tell because these goods are made oversees and the quality varies so much.
TS: So who is the competition today?
BS: Everybody’s my competition and I’ll tell you why! Now most people won’t understand that until I explain that in the old days, the OTHER jobbers were my competition and now, every retail store is my competition! They are buying the goods in bulk and reselling them. Today you walk into a supermarket and what do you see? They’re selling towels! And a drug store chain is selling sheet sets and even pillows! Am I right or wrong? The way retail is set up now, there are a lot fewer department store linen departments or fine linen shops. You can buy textiles almost anywhere.
TS: You do sales the old fashioned way.
GS: I’m a people person. When the shop’s not busy with pick-ups or deliveries, I’ll go through the files and see what orders they placed in the past years. I’ll call to see how they are doing and tell them about any good deals I might have for them. I never call to ask them directly for an order but I just to have a friendly conversation, and the funny thing is that that’s really how I find out how what they need. They are glad that I ended up calling them. Sometimes we joke about how fast the washcloths disappear at a hotel for example, well I tell them to chain them down because obviously the hotel customers are stealing them. I ask them how am I supposed to stay in business if they don’t steal the washcloths? And then I say that I’ll send even more hotel customers over to them.
TS: Now then, how would you like to be remembered?
GS: As a man who helped people survive in their businesses. I always try to help my customers, like my parents did, to get the highest quality goods and save them money on the goods and shipping costs too.