Baby Boomer Memories: Sam's Soldiers' and Sailors' store always had your size
Baby boomers may remember Army and Navy stores that sold government surplus, clothing and other items, including work clothes.
In the 1950s and 1960s in the Berkshires, there were several of these stores, and they were mostly named for the owners. Pittsfield had Mike's, Sol's, Holman's and Jim's. North Adams and Great Barrington each had a Jack's. Great Barrington and Lee had Ben's, and Adams had Bob's.
By the 1970s, most of these stores had either closed or evolved into more diverse stores. Ben's in Lee and Jim's in Pittsfield are about the only survivors, and neither one has sold government surplus items for decades.
One Army and Navy store, not (originally) named for the owner, but always called by his name, was the Soldiers' and Sailors' Department Store at 307 North St. Owned by a colorful businessman named Sam Lenhoff, the store was always referred to as Sam's. (Sam was my grandfather Max's younger brother.) The store was one of the only North Street businesses that had a penny scale located outside the entrance.
You couldn't walk into the place without receiving a greeting from Sam that was often a loud gibberish word to get your attention "Gibba da Groozha!" Sam would then shout out a deal that took a while to decipher. "Today we have a special. Pants are $10 each or two pair for $25."
In the 1950s, Sam not only looked like comedian Jack Benny, but also shared a similar sense of humor.
No matter what size you wore in pants, jackets, shirts, socks or boots, Sam had them. If not on the floor, his helper, Cliff, would emerge from the old basement either with what you wanted or something similar that would be sure to fit. Rather than lose a sale, Sam would sometimes have his helpers buy an item from another store and pick it up while the customer waited.
Sam was born in North Adams in 1903, the fourth of five children of Jacob and Cecille Lenhoff, immigrants from Latvia. He learned the retail business working in his father's small clothing store in North Adams, and by the age of 23 was managing the M. Landau (chain) Department Store in North Adams.
In 1930, Sam saw an opportunity to open his own surplus store in Pittsfield, at 351 North St., and he named it the Berkshire Army and Navy Store. In 1934, Sam renamed it Soldiers' and Sailors' Department Store, and seven years later moved it to 307 North St., where he added his name "Sam" to the sign. He operated a store on North Street for nearly 35 years.
In 1943, Sam was drafted to serve in World War II at age 40 and was stationed in Camp Pickett, Va., as a private in the medical corps.
His older brother, Max, came from Boston to manage the store during Sam's service. But it turns out that Sam was only in the Army for four months and discharged under a 38-year-old regulation allowing him to do factory work.
After the war Sam returned to run the store. His brother continued to help for a few years.
Sam Lenhoff, usually seen as a boisterous, outgoing, shrewd businessman, had quite an interesting "other side."
In the 1940s, he began dating, and later married, a popular teacher named Ruth Nesbit. Together, the two enjoyed horseback riding and boating. They were both officers in the Pittsfield Boating Club and were also actively involved in the Pittsfield Grange for over 30 years.
One of the most interesting things about Sam was his generosity. It is believed that among gifts he made was an anonymous donation of a trip for an elderly city resident to fly to the Caribbean to visit her family that she had not seen in some time.
Sam closed his store in the mid-1960s and dabbled in other businesses before fully retiring. He passed away in 1982 at the age of 79, and even in his later years, he'd still call your attention with "Gibba da Groozha!"
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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