A powerful remnant from my retail family past overwhelmed me last week at a visit to the J.Press shop on Bleecker Street.
Staff member Robert Wolf showed me a battered 1949 framed magazine article about my grandfather, Jacobi Press, an artifact recovered from the demolished New Haven premises. I clearly recall it on the fitting room wall of 262 York Street where, according to family lore, Grandpa snatched a suit jacket off a dissatisfied customer during a fitting, telling him, “If you don’t like the way it fits, then I own it. It’s mine, and you don’t have to pay for it.”
Saluting its Member of the Month and former national officer, the Custom Tailors & Design Association ran the celebratory 1949 article in its trade magazine, Custom Tailor, reporting, “Jacobi Press’ store is much a part of the Yale campus as Mory’s. Yale President Charles Seymour frequently stops by for a chat, and whenever he’s in town Secretary of State Dean Acheson makes it a point to see him.”
Tailoring was almost an accident for my grandfather, but not quite. He was born 1880 in Dvinsk, Latvia, a small town in the Pale of Russia province of Tsar Alexander II. His family wanted him to share the second rabbinic family slot also occupied by his brother, 25 years his senior. He began Talmud studies at the Yeshiva in Dvinsk, mentored by his rabbi brother. When pogroms in the district became intolerable, he left the shtetl with his remaining family for the Golden Door of America, leaving their rabbi brother, who insisted retaining his obligation to his Yeshiva. They arrived in Boston Harbor 1896 en route to Middletown, Connecticut, where brothers Max and Harry had settled earlier, establishing a small tailoring business. At age 16 my grandfather learned English by assisting the shop’s customers, at the time working with an old German tailor who taught him the art of cutting and designing in-between delivering packages to help pay his way.
Jacobi’s big break came in 1902. Since the Civil War septuagenarian merchant tailor Herman Goldbaum had owned and operated a shop on 150 Elm Street, just off the Yale campus in downtown New Haven. The turn of the century found Goldbaum embroiled in debt and looking for a way out of his financial predicament. A local needle and thread supplier stuck with Goldbaum’s IOUs was impressed with young Press’ Middletown tailoring potential and arranged a meeting between the aspiring 20-year-old and the debt-ridden 72-year-old. A future partnership agreement was negotiated pursuant to Press bringing in enough new business to settle Goldbaum’s financial abyss.
How to bring in the new business?
“Early on I didn’t know the difference between a college freshman and a senior,” my grandfather recalled in the Custom Tailor article, “but I mustered up enough courage to knock on a dormitory door one afternoon. At first the boys laughed at me, but before I was through I had most of them as customers. In those days I remember a suit sold for $28 to $35, which was a pretty good price, even for a Yale man to pay.”
The training he received at his brothers’ emporium in Middletown provided Jacobi Press enough tailoring experience to process all the new orders he nudged on the Yale campus. Jake Press’ outgoing personality and personal magnetism brought him instant campus celebrity. Meanwhile, Herman Goldbaum’s septuagenarian disabilities forced the youthful entrepreneur to do his own cutting, make deliveries, work nights as well as Sundays, keep the books, pay the bills, buy all the woolen and trimmings, as well as attend to the family needs of wife Jenny and their children Marion and Irving. Fortunately my father Paul arrived in 1911, during more prosperous times.
By 1908 the Herman Goldbaum obligations were met and all bills paid in full. The firm Goldbaum & Press was dissolved in a very unbusinesslike manner. No lawyers assisted the transaction. The partners flipped a coin for each piece of goods, shook hands, and divided the assets. Together with the money earned after paying off Goldbaum’s debts, Grandpa gathered enough financial strength to buy an older tailoring firm on York Street, Smith & Murray, that his pals told him was in trouble. The eponymous J.Press was thus born under his sole ownership.
“Men like Lewis Douglas, our present Ambassador to England, still have their clothes tailored by Press,” Custom Tailor reported. “Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, now Marshall Plan Envoy W. Averell Harriman, heir to the Union Pacific Railroad fortune, fondly recalls when Jacobi Press lent him 25 cents for breakfast after an expensive weekend. In fact, the Press firm’s ledgers read like an unabridged version of Who’s Who in American life. It is certainly a far cry from the infant business established by a young man who had to grow a mustache to cover up his youth.”
In 1914 a salesman for a firm producing fine British woolens called on my grandfather to look at the line of hand-loomed tweed fabrics extremely popular in England at the time. The salesman had little luck in the early days of The Great War finding proper outlets in the United States for his line. He was thunderstruck that my grandfather bought his wares: J.Press was among the first in the custom tailor trade to import British cloths and a leader in that field, continuing post-World War II to do business with that first firm, based in Galashiels, Scotland.
Custom Tailor hailed the personality and career of the grandfather I so deeply loved. “Now as he nears 70 he pours the same energy and devotion into his work as he did over 46 years ago— the day he began tailoring with a combination of genial smile and keen mind for business.”
The 1949 encomium ended with a seemingly ancient prophesy: “It is a well-known fact that people like J.Press stay in business forever. However, he has the great satisfaction of knowing that back in 1902 he set in motion a business that will probably continue to clothe college students and alumni for generations to come.”
Jacobi Press died June 13, 1951, two years after the article appeared. — RICHARD PRESS