In 1946, Irving Shulman opened Jim's Workingman's Store at 99 Woodlawn Ave., across from the General Electric Co. He named the store in honor of his infant son, Jim.
However, customers soon called him "Jim," and throughout his life the name stuck. One could say he was named for his son (this storyteller). The store carried work clothes as well as government surplus items.
The family of Jim's wife, Helen Lenhoff, settled in the Berkshires in the 1890s. Jim, who grew up in Boston, loved the bucolic Berkshires and thought it a great place to raise a family. As an engineer and former Navy lieutenant, he was offered a good job with GE, but was sure he would someday be transferred to another plant. Thus he chose to open his own business and stay in Pittsfield.
In 1952 Jim's brother–in-law, Murray Levine, joined him in an expanded Jim's Department Store at 792 Tyler Street that would also carry boy's and men's dress clothing and shoes. Sadly on Christmas Eve in 1957, a devastating multi-alarm fire all but destroyed the family business.
Not to be defeated, Murray and Jim built a new store at 789 Tyler St. In less than a year, Jim's Family Department Store opened its doors and the partners and their wives (Helen and Cecily) were back in business, now selling men's, women's and children's shoes and clothing.
Hard work, long hours, close family ties, optimism and personal service made the business a real success. Jim's became the leading family retail store in Morningside.
In 1967 the four owners were approached by the IUE-CIO, which made an offer to purchase the family store for a Union Hall. The couples in their 40s were too young to retire and wanted to continue the business.
They realized that for success and growth they would have to move either to a shopping center or to North Street. They made a choice, sold their building and located in a vacant storefront at 49 North St. Little did they know that 50 years later GE would totally shut down and all the old retail businesses would leave their part of Morningside.
When the new store opened, as Jim's House of Shoes, it carried only footwear, but for the entire family. In the early 1970s with a still bustling downtown, the two couples opened a second store at 241 North St. limited to children's shoes.
The next generation of both families, Marge (Shulman) and Joyce (Levine) and their spouses, joined the business to manage the new store. To appeal to kids, the store featured a merry-go-round made of four little pony-decorated pedal bikes that would go in a circle. In 1976 Jim's bought the building at 235-239 North St. to consolidate both of their locations into one larger retail store to sell both adult and children's footwear.
As the original founders moved toward retirement, the next generation took over the business. During the following decade the younger generation also operated a women's Naturalizer Shoe Store at the Berkshire Mall.
In 2002 Joyce, and her husband, Marc Abecassis, became the sole owners of Jim's House of Shoes. Joyce passed away from leukemia in 2008, but her husband, Marc, has kept the store going. He is proud to celebrate its 70th anniversary this summer as the oldest retail clothing-related business in the City.
Ironically Marc is called "Jim" by his customers, as was his late Uncle Irving, 70 years ago. Marc's mother-in-law and original shoe store partner, Cecily Levine, still lives in Pittsfield and will be celebrating her 90th birthday as the store celebrates its anniversary. And yes the kiddie merry-go-round is still there waiting retirement, and some day will be displayed at the Berkshire Carousel.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to berkshirecarousel.com. (He is also the "Jim" in the name, Jim's House of Shoes.)