The History of Levine’s: The Store for Men and Boys
by Sara Miller Arnon and Julie Miller-Soros (April 2011)
In 1882 William Levine, our great-grandfather, came to America from Vilna, Poland (Russia). He was 18 years old. He landed in New York, made his way to Boston where he had relatives and William became a peddler. He chose the route in Maine it seems because the cost of a peddler’s license was half what it was in the big City—-it was $ 50 in Maine, which was an enormous amount of money in those days. He worked his route throughout the state of Maine learning a lot from his customers and from his visits from town to town, farm to farm. In 1889 he visited his first cousin Julius in Boston and fell in love with and married Julius’ daughter, Sarah. William was 24 and Sarah was 17. They went to Maine and lived in Dexter where he continued as a peddler and where Sarah gave birth to the first of her children born over 26 years! Within a year they decided to move to Waterville where there were already some other Jews AND where they understood there was a significant Polish population (Winslow). Since they spoke Polish from living in Vilna and they spoke Yiddish, they felt they would do well. They also learned English and William could read Hebrew.
Being able to speak Polish was quite an asset and they realized that they were able to meet the needs of the Polish community because they could communicate so well. William continued to travel. They were able to offer goods “on credit”, as it was known, and customers paid by the week for the goods they purchased. They became very popular among their customers, who referred more, and they always LISTENED to what the customer wanted and of course, as great retailers, found those requested items.
In Waterville, Sarah and William lived on Temple Street, then Chaplin Street, then Maple Street, and then they purchased the property at the corner of Maple St and Ticonic St and it was here that Sarah opened a small shop selling dry goods, buttons, zippers, items that people needed. Eventually that shop became William’s first store because as Sarah had more children—8 more between 1892 and 1916, (one child died in infancy), they decided that William should not travel any longer because they were well liked and could establish a store right in Waterville. So, he started at Maple and Ticonic St in Sarah’s shop, then in 1896 or 98 he purchased the clothing business of Charles E. Lessard, located in the City Hotel block. After several moves, in 1904 Wm purchased the block on the east side of Main Street where Levine’s remained until it closed in 1996.
As the business grew so did the family. By 1915 they were well established as a clothing store for men and boys, first called Levine’s, then Wm Levine and Son. After the death of their oldest son, Teddy who was to become William’s partner, their 2 other sons, Ludy(Louis) and Pacy (Percy) decided to go into the business with Papa and gave up future studies in medicine and law. The business then became Wm Levine and Sons and finally just Levine’s: The Store for Men & Boys. After World War II, our father, Howard Miller, returned from his assignment in North Africa with a young French-Algerian wife and a 6 month old baby (me) and he then went into the family business also.
At the same time that William was building the Store, Sarah began investing in real estate in the North End of Waterville where they lived on Ticonic Street in a large home that they built there. She took great risks because they did not have a lot of money, but she bought INCOME PROPERTY in order to rent to tenants. We recently interviewed Edwina Bolduc who still lives in an apartment that was a part of the Levine Real Estate. She’s in her 90’s. She told us that she rented her first apartment from Sarah Levine who she described as an elegant and lovely lady. She told us that as a single mother with young children in 1925 no one would rent to her except Mrs. Levine and she has stayed in Levine apartments ever since and has every one of her rent receipts!!!! Sarah Levine was very good to her tenants and would walk around the neighborhood stopping to talk with the mothers and children and getting to know them. She helped many tenants find work, according to Edwina, and she made sure that the children were fed and clothed, even if she had to take clothing from Wm’s business, but often she sent the mothers to the Store and Wm or his sons knew to give them a huge discount. It seems that she was a very well-liked landlady—a quality that she passed on to her daughter Frieda, who continued the real estate business after Sarah died in 1934, and also to her sons, Ludy and Pacy who also bought and managed real estate in the area. This quality of GENUINE CARE AND CONCERN FOR OTHERS certainly spilled over into the work in the Store as well.
So, back to the Store—what was so terrific about it? In the 1920’s to early 1970’s Main Street America was booming. And in Waterville there were mills and factories such as Scott Paper Co, Keyes Fiber, Hathaway Shirt Co, and local woolen mills—all along the Kennebec River. There were also lots of private businesses that made up Main Street—Stern’s Dept Store, Dunham’s, Emery-Brown’s, Butler’s, Fishmans, Alvina and Delia, Al Corey’s Music, Woolworth’s, JC Penney, Sears, a Montgomery Ward Catalog store, Tardiff’s, Day’s Jeweler’s, Yardgood Center, Levine’s, Waterville Hardware and lots of private banks as well as Cyr’s and later LaLime’s Pharmacy, and of course, LaVerdiere’s Drug Store which held the prominent place at the north end of Main Street where Levine’s was the anchor at the south end of Main Street. It was a busy town—stores closed Wednesday afternoons and stayed open until 9 PM on Friday nights and everything was closed on Sunday except restaurants and the movie theaters. Then in the early 70’s a new phenomenon arrived in America starting in sunny California where there was sunshine and good weather—-Welcome to the MALL. Stores expanded and opened branches in local malls and everyone drove to shop. Large stores such as K-Mart, EJ Korvette’s, Mammoth Mart, and Caldor’s popped up everywhere. The Waterville business community recognizing the need for more than just Main Street parking and shopping entered into their version of Urban Renewal and tore down a large part of Main Street and built their version of mall-shopping off Main Street and later developed other strip malls on Upper Main Street and Kennedy Mem Drive. At the same time there came a change in the way America dressed—-jeans, which had always been WORK clothes, became very popular informal wear for teens and young adults, then even older adults. Leisure suits changed menswear from the formal suit and tie which most men had been wearing for year.
If you were a FULL SERVICE STORE, which Levine’s was, you adjusted, even expanded, which they did many times. But, Howard, Ludy and Pacy knew that they would not function well with branch stores—they were too hands-on and they didn’t want to leave Waterville for any reason. (They had been asked to anchor the mall in Portland when it was being built and they refused) For many years Colby College men were a vital and important part of the business. In the Store’s expansion in 1961 an entire addition was added to the Store—–THE COLBY CORNER. And later a new shop was added downstairs where for years we had sold “work clothes” to the factory workers and farmers. This new shop was called “The Underground” and specialized in the informal wear that was taking over men’s dressing—tee shirts, jeans, informal pants, etc.
Levine’s was CUSTOMER ORIENTED. From the early days of Sarah and William catering to a population with whom they could communicate in Polish, to the Main Street store where we catered to the workingman, the lawyer, the doctor, the professor, the teenager, the college kid, Levine’s ALWAYS had an ear to what the customer wanted and made sure to provide it at a full range of prices. Levine’s was also a gathering place. Not just for our family—and believe me the Store was our 2nd home. We hung out there, we worked there, we met future dates there, we knew our employees and we were a part of their lives as they were a part of ours. Levine’s had a large staff. Ludy and Pacy were the “Bosses”—the owners. But, they deferred to their nephew, our dad, Howard, for most of the running of the Store because with him at the helm they could partake of their other interests. Ludy’s all-consuming interest was Colby College—its sports, it’s academics, it’s growth. He loved the College and worked hard raising money for it’s expansion to The Hill and also in recruiting Jewish students to the campus. He was dedicated to Colby until the day he died. And Pacy, while he too loved the College, his other interest was the Real Estate—he loved renovating the apartments he rented. They were a remarkable TEAM, Ludy and Pacy. They were dedicated and truly loved their work. They cared deeply about their employees who worked at the Store for so many years and had loyal customers of their own. And they loved spending time with the customers—whether they actually bought something didn’t matter!!! They had incredible relationships with students from Colby, who would visit after graduating or wrote or called when they needed a new suit or belt or something that they knew Levine’s would have. Not only did they find it, Ludy, Pacy, and Howard remembered the student’s sizes and inseam measurements!!!!! The 3 men were well respected in the “Market” by the manufacturers of men’s and boy’s wear. They were fun and successful and people enjoyed being around them, especially Ludy who remembered everything about you even if he hadn’t seen you for years, and if you had played sports he remembered your stats!!!! Here’s an example of how excited “The Market” could get knowing something about the lives of these 3—picture this. A large men’s clothing business and my dad has 3 daughters!!!!! All we cared about was meeting college students by working the Main Wrapping counter or wearing Lord Jeff sweaters, probably the only unisex item sold during our formative years. Then in 1975 I gave birth to TWIN BOYS—Levi Strauss sent me 40 pair of overalls size toddler 2 and 3; Pacific Trails, Might Mac, and CB Sports sent them winter jackets until they were 15 and at 13 when they were Bnei Mitzvahed, they were dressed by Gant shirts, Dockers pants (which was Levi’s), Botany Sports Jackets, and Sperry Docksider shoes!!!! How many stores in America have that kind of relationship with their suppliers? Levine’s was the LARGEST single-site store purchaser of Levis in the country and it was the LARGEST SINGLE SITE store for men in all of New England—it was over 30,000 sq feet of selling space!!
There was a brass plaque on the outside of the Store for many years. It explains the Levine’s success story:
Levine’s, the Store for Men and Boys. Founded in 1891 by William Levine (1865 – 1946). This store is Waterville’s oldest clothing establishment that is still owned and operated by the founding family.
We still have the plaque at our summer home. But it says it all—keep it simple.
Levine’s offered customers something that America is gradually losing. CUSTOMER SERVICE with a SMILE and knowledge of the Product. You could outfit a family for generations because of good merchandise, good service, full service. They had a full tailor shop on site for alterations—free of charge. And, they extended credit long before the credit card. We were told that they gave suits to some Colby graduating seniors for job interviews with the belief that those boys would pay when they could, and they did. When the Store closed in 1996 there were many editorials that were written in the local paper every day. People thanked the employees for taking such good care of them. Family members wrote to thank the employees and the customers for their loyalty. Grandchildren wrote in to share special memories of time spent at Levine’s COMMUNITY was such an essential part of Levine’s. The business gave quality clothing, customer service and long-lasting friendships. The customers gave quality participation, shared memories, and an affirmation that the choices one family can make in life matter to the Community at Large. Gathering and meeting in the Shoe Department was common for family, vacationers, alumni, and friends. As I recently re-read some of the editorials, I was flooded with memories of days gone by. One of my personal favorites was written by JP Devine, who still writes for the local paper. He said what he was going to miss most when Levine’s closed was being able to drop in every few days for just a few minutes and have a great laugh with Howard, Ludy, and Pacy.
Levine’s was a Clothing Store, but it wasn’t just a place to go shopping. It was that and so much more.